Muslims sue in bid to become citizens

Twenty-five Florida Muslims are suing to speed up the process.

By Mike Brassfield, Times Staff Writer
Published February 28, 2008

TAMPA - Samir Othman, who has lived in the United States for 23 years, stood with his wife and children Wednesday in front of Tampa's federal courthouse and talked of how he longs to be a U.S. citizen.

"We all love this country," the Tampa electrical engineer said. "All my children were born here."

Othman, originally from Jordan, is one of 25 Florida Muslims who are suing federal authorities over bureaucratic delays they say have stalled their citizenship applications for up to four years. The government says it normally takes about a year and a half for a foreign-born U.S. resident with a green card to win citizenship.

Although the plaintiffs in this case are legal U.S. residents and have passed criminal background checks, they've been unable to become citizens, according to the federal class-action suit. Each is waiting for the FBI to finish a "name check" on them - a potentially time-consuming review of whether their names appear in any law enforcement records, including whether they were witnesses or victims of a crime.

If their name or a similar name or even a fragment of their name shows up in any kind of file, it can prompt further research by the FBI, including manually searching old paper records that must by retrieved from one of 265 locations around the country, the lawsuit says.

"They get stuck in limbo for years and years," said attorney Mary Gundrum of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which helped file the suit. "These individuals want nothing more than to become U.S. citizens. They have followed every law this country requires."

The 25 plaintiffs live all over Florida, including seven from the Tampa Bay area. They include people like Akram Jawad, a retired Iraqi physician working in Tampa real estate, and Khalil Hamdan, a Jordanian national and six-year U.S. resident who is a manager at a Tampa wholesale distributor.

They're suing the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and federal Citizenship and Immigration Services, seeking to speed up the process. Similar lawsuits have been filed within the last year in California and Illinois.

Ramzy Kilic, a civil rights coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Tampa, said the pattern is for Muslims' citizenship applications to be delayed by the name checks.

Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, couldn't comment on the lawsuit but said Muslims aren't being singled out.

"Every applicant for naturalization goes through this check," she said.

It now takes an average of 16 to 18 months for a foreign-born resident with a green card to become a citizen, from the time they apply to the time they're called in for an interview and exam, she said. The FBI name check is part of that process.

The Department of Homeland Security says about 150,000 green card and naturalization applicants are being delayed by the FBI name check, with 30,000 held up for more than three years.

But Rhatigan said it's usually not a problem for would-be citizens. Less than 1 percent of applicants for citizenship have to wait longer than six months for the name check to be completed.

"We're not going to approve any naturalization application until the FBI returns to us the name check" as well as fingerprint and background checks, she said. "It's our commitment to our national security."

The 25 Florida Muslims' lawsuit alleges that, although federal law requires a decision within 120 days of an applicant's naturalization interview, some of the plaintiffs have been waiting for four years. Without citizenship, many of them are separated from relatives abroad.

On a cold Wednesday morning, Samir Othman huddled with his family outside the federal courthouse. He said being a U.S. citizen would make it easier to travel abroad with his family. Also, he added, "I would love to vote."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or 813 226-3435.