Alia Ahmadi had every reason to believe she’d be granted United States citizenship. The 73-year-old Afghan woman, who emigrated here to be with her children in Fremont, passed her naturalization interview in 2003 and was told to expect her oath notice within a month. Four years later, she is still waiting. The reason? The FBI is running a name check.

“If I’m somebody to worry about, why wait four years?” says Ahmadi, who struggles with anxiety and depression as a result of her long wait. “I feel very heartbroken. I didn’t want to be a stranger here.”

Ahmadi is not alone in feeling the burn of stricter background checks enforced after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Three lawsuits are pending across the country over delays like hers, including a class-action suit filed in San Francisco last month by the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of Northern California, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Asian Law Caucus.

That lawsuit calls for time limits on the citizenship process, as well as a resolution for eight Bay Area residents, including Ahmadi. While each of the plaintiffs passed their exams more than two years ago, Ahmadi’s situation is particularly striking. “She’s basically a housebound grandmother,” notes Cecilia D. Wang, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “There’s no conceivable reason for her case to be caught up in an FBI name check.”

Applications for naturalization – no matter whose – cannot be processed without clearance from the FBI, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. For its part, the FBI says the long delays have to do with the number of name checks that have been required since the 2001 attacks. But both agencies declined to comment on how a name check could possibly take up to four years to complete.

This is a story Ahmadi has heard many times over. “Every time we call, they say, ‘You have to wait,'” says her son, 46-year-old Basheer Ahmadi. Along with dozens of phone calls to the immigration agency, the family has made three trips to its offices in San Francisco. “We never even got a letter that said her case is in progress,” Basheer says.


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