Shadi Odeh has lived 17 of his 31 years in the United States.
He is a Palestinian, transplanted at age 14 to Texas, where he was a boisterous Dallas Cowboys fan. In 1999 he moved to South Florida, where he embraced basketball’s Miami Heat, which he watches on a wide-screen TV, eating chicken wings and Italian food. His favorite TV show is The Simpsons.
Odeh says he has become an American in every way but one: He has so far been denied citizenship and the right to vote. He very much wants to vote in November – for a Democrat.
“Barack Obama is a very good candidate, but it is also time to have a woman president,” he says. “I would vote for one of those two.”
The question is whether he will be able to register. Odeh passed his naturalization exam and citizenship interviews in 2006, but FBI name checks have delayed his swearing-in for more than two years.
Those checks, instituted after the Sept. 11 attacks, involve comparing an applicant’s name with names in FBI criminal and intelligence files to see whether the person is a security threat. Even if an applicant’s name matches only an acquaintance of a suspect or a witness to an event, approval can be delayed.
Those FBI procedures come on top of security checks performed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which grants or denies citizenship.
The process can take time, too much time for some would-be citizens, especially in an election year.
Odeh is one of six South Florida Muslims who in December sued the federal government, charging that their citizenship applications have been delayed “unreasonably and unlawfully” by name checks. Federal statutes, they insist, require the government to render a decision within 120 days of the interviews.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Osama Qasmieh, a Royal Palm Beach engineer originally from Jordan who has not been outside the U.S. in 20 years. His application has been delayed six years.
They also include another Jordanian, Belle Glade resident Mohammed Abdeen. A relative petitioned 20 years ago for him to be allowed into the U.S., and Abdeen arrived seven years ago. He passed his exam two years ago.
The lawsuit and another brought by five other South Florida Muslims last year are part of an avalanche of suits across the country.
“Hundreds of thousands of people nationally have been delayed,” says Tania Galloni, an attorney for the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami. “In New York, it’s Russians. In California, it’s Chinese. In Florida, we have seen a disproportionate number of Muslims affected.”
Being denied the right to vote is one way the plaintiffs say they have been damaged.
The delays could affect the November elections, says Altaf Ali, executive director of the South Florida Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
He says there are about 200,000 Muslims in Florida, and among those eligible to vote, turnout is traditionally high.
“This year a lot of people in our community are very interested in Barack Obama being the next president,” Ali said. “I myself am a Republican, but I won’t vote Republican this year.” He’s backing Obama.
The lawsuits have brought a response from the government. Last month it issued a statement saying extra personnel had been assigned to name checks and backlogged citizenship applications. (MORE)