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Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News – May 23, 2008

May 23–For three years and three months, Ali Hussain has waited to become a U.S. citizen.
On Thursday, his wait was over — but not before he sued the federal government.
In February, Hussain and 24 other Muslims joined a statewide lawsuit against Citizenship and Immigration Services and the FBI for what they called unusually lengthy delays in processing their citizenship applications. Some waited as long as five years.
“The lawsuit helped my application. I have been waiting so long,” said Hussain, an Orlando machinist who hails from Iraq.
In a post-9-11 era of fingerprinting and thorough background checks, legal action is also becoming part of the naturalization process, some area attorneys say.
“These lawsuits bring attention to the government that [processing delays] is a big problem,” said Shahzad Ahmed, an Orlando attorney who represents several Muslim clients.
Of the seven Central Florida plaintiffs in the statewide lawsuit, five have since become U.S. citizens.
Four plaintiffs were sworn in as citizens Thursday at the Orange County Convention Center, including Hussain and his brother, Aso Hussain, a graphic-art student at Valencia Community College.
“We are so happy for this day,” said Aso Hussain, 25, waving his citizenship certificate and an American flag.
Nationally, lawsuits against the immigration agency are becoming more common, especially in places with large Muslim populations. Central Florida has an estimated 40,000 followers of Islam.
“The lawsuits say, ‘Listen, this is ridiculous and prejudicial,’ ” said Lisa Krueger Khan of the Central Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyer Association. “They force the FBI to finish the background check and Immigration [Services] to act.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes citizenship applications, does not comment on pending lawsuits, but Ana Santiago, an agency spokeswoman in Miami, said the delays don’t target one group of people.
“Religion isn’t asked on the form,” Santiago said.
She said the stepped-up processing of citizenship applications is because the agency is clearing the backlog.
Orlando is among the cities with the largest backlog of citizenship applications, ranking in the top 10 for longest wait times, according to recent projections released by U.S. Immigration Services.
Federal law requires a decision on citizenship to be made within 120 days of the naturalization interview.
For Muslims, the FBI name check often holds up the application. Nearly 200 databases and offices are checked before a name is cleared.
According to a 2007 Department of Homeland Security report, 64 percent of the FBI name-check cases had been pending more than 90 days, 32 percent more than a year.
Muslim names are often singled out, advocates say.
“You are at the mercy of the FBI checks,” said Gail S. Seeram, an Orlando attorney who represents Muslims.
Some of her clients have even changed their names.
“They drop the ‘Muhammad,’ ” she said.
While lawsuits are becoming more common, some applicants are reluctant to sue the federal government because it would mean, in essence, issuing a legal threat while asking their adoptive country to embrace them.
“They don’t want to bring a suit against the government,” Khan said. “They fear they might be red-flagged.”
When Hussain, 34, approached the Orlando office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is helping the plaintiffs, he was unsure whether he wanted to add his name.
“He said, ‘Am I going to go against the government?’ ” said Danette Zaghari-Mask, Orlando CAIR executive director.
But he had tried every avenue to speed up his citizenship application, including calling and visiting immigration offices in Orlando. The sticking point, he was eventually told, was his name.
Originally from Kurdistan in northern Iraq, Hussain worked for an American aid organization in his native land. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, he was accused of being a spy for the U.S. Seeking political asylum, he and his family fled Iraq 12 years ago with the help of an American relief organization.
That’s why the long wait for his citizenship weighed heavily on his mind.
“America brought me here,” he said.

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