Arshad Mahmood, a 36-year-old Pakistani immigrant, did everything by the book: A legal U.S. resident, he applied for citizenship after the requisite five years in the country, passed his interview and test, cleared a criminal background check, and waited for the chance to swear allegiance to his new homeland.
It was supposed to take six months by law. Instead it has taken more than five years.
In the meantime, Mahmood, a North Miami real estate agent and mortgage broker, got married during a visit back home and fathered a child. But his wife and now 4-year-old daughter remain in Lahore, unable to join him legally. He has not seen them in more than a year.
When he got tired of waiting, Mahmood sued U.S. immigration and Homeland Security officials. He is among 25 Florida residents who joined a lawsuit charging that the government has improperly delayed their citizenship applications.
All are Muslims, though the problem is not limited to that group, attorneys for the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which is representing the 25 plaintiffs, said at a news conference Wednesday in Miami.
The apparent holdup: a security ''name check'' by the FBI to determine whether a citizenship applicant's name, or a similar one or even a fragment of the name, ever appeared in any agency case file at any time in the past. . .
The 25 were referred to the advocacy center by local offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Altaf Ali, executive director of the group in Florida, said the council has been flooded by complaints. The plaintiffs include a service technician for a food-service company, a convenience-store cashier and small-business owners.
The attorneys believe applicants with Muslim names are disproportionately, but far from exclusively, affected by the delays. The advocacy center is also assisting a Cuban woman whose naturalization decision has been delayed by a name check, though she has not sued.
Shortly after the center filed the first of its two complaints in Miami, Mahmood and three other plaintiffs were notified their citizenship had been approved. A second federal suit was filed Feb. 19 in Orlando.
The time-consuming measure, which U.S. officials say can require a hand search of paper records kept at 265 locations, has been a major contributor to massive backlogs plaguing U.S. Customs and Immigration Services.
The practice has come under increasing scrutiny at a time when a sharp increase in processing fees charged by the immigration agency for green cards and naturalization has led to a surge in citizenship applications by immigrants wanting to secure their status or vote in the November elections. (MORE)