Iman Kadom's invitation to her naturalization ceremony landed in her Carrollwood mailbox in early March.
Her husband, Akram Jawad, was pleased: "I said, 'Oh, I'm married to an American now.'"
They celebrated with cake. Kadom wasn't so festive because her husband's letter hadn't arrived. It still hasn't.
Jawad, a retired Iraqi surgeon-turned-Realtor, has waited almost four years to become a citizen. Like his wife, he is a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit with a dozen other Muslims in the Tampa Bay and Orlando areas to prod the federal government to finalize their citizenship applications. Since its filing in February, three of the plaintiffs' applications have been approved.
The rest are still victims of a backlog that the federal government said this month it's working feverishly to eliminate.
The culprit in the delay, according to the lawsuit: a laborious FBI name-check process that immigration officials intensified in 2002 as an extra security measure beyond the criminal background check. It checks any name match in all FBI case files, whether the name pops up as a subject, associate, conspirator or witness.
Many FBI files are still on paper. So the check often involves hand searching files to see whether the name is indeed a match with the would-be citizen and whether it includes derogatory information that is passed along to immigration officials.
Some Applicants Have Waited Years
The Orlando lawsuit, argued by lawyers from the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, and others in Miami by 11 other plaintiffs, say the name checks have left their citizenship applications in a holding pattern for years.
Ana Santiago, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that as of March, the agency had 72,000 name checks pending with the FBI in which the applicant has waited more than six months.
That's less than 5 percent of the 1.5 million annual total.
For those waiting, however, that's little solace.
Jawad and his wife have been legal U.S. permanent residents for more than 11 years. They both passed their citizenship interviews Sept. 13, 2004. The name check kept them waiting for more than three years.
The ombudsman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in a recent report that the "FBI name check process has limited value to public safety or national security, especially because in almost every case, the applicant is in the United States during the name check process, living or working without restriction."
Jawad said he doesn't mind the name check itself.
"We are absolutely in support of name-checking after Sept. 11 - but not to take that long of a time," he said. "One year is OK. Eighteen months? OK ... But not to take this long of a time. Because that makes you feel different. You feel little in comparison to other people. Your dignity, I feel, has been hurt."
The would-be citizens are suffering far more than a loss of dignity.
Danette Zaghari-Mask, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Orlando, said the delays have affected people financially as well. One Orlando plaintiff, she said, wanted to bring his foreign-born wife here. Without his U.S. citizenship, she said, the only way he could do that was to bring her as a foreign student.
"She can't apply for a green card. She's paying out-of-country tuition," Zaghari-Mask said. "They've gone into significant financial ruin."