Citizenship path sometimes rocky

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

  • Michael Matza
  • Philadelphia Inquirer

Many foreigners who seek U.S. citizenship accomplish it smoothly. They get visas and green cards connoting legal residency, become eligible for naturalization after five years, and, within months of successful application interviews and FBI fingerprints and name checks, are sworn in as new Americans.

Not so for about 1 percent of applicants. For them the process stalls, seemingly forever.

The roadblock, critics say, derives from what they describe as an excessively redundant name-check process in which the FBI is asked to comb its records for any mention of the applicant.

Amid a growing backlog of these cases in limbo -- a backlog made worse by heightened security concerns after 9/11 -- and another surge in applications last year ahead of a filing-fee increase, U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson last week used sharp language to question the government's rationale for checking names a third time for citizenship after applicants have already been vetted in the visa and green-card stages.

'Given that naturalization applicants have already gone through the FBI name-check process twice, the court has genuine concerns' about the need for third checks, Baylson wrote, noting that such triple-level scrutiny has produced multi-year delays, significant public expenditures, burdensome expenses for applicants, 'uncertainty in their personal and professional lives, and immeasurable impact on their families.'

Nor does the third check seem to make sense from a national security point of view, Baylson noted in the case of Victor Mocanu, a Philadelphia-area man, and six co-plaintiffs, who have no apparent blemishes on their records, but have been been waiting years for the government to act on their citizenship requests.

Mocanu, of Friendship, Pa., is a Romanian immigrant in his late 50s who works as a mechanic. According to court documents, he applied for citizenship in March 2004, was fingerprinted in June that year and was scheduled to appear the following February for an interview. A month before his appointment, he received a notice that his interview had been canceled due to 'unforeseen circumstances.'

Ever since, he has been awaiting government action on his case.

'If these individuals are potentially dangerous to the United States, it would seem their applications should be expedited over all other work,' Baylson wrote in an interim order asking for briefs on whether the immigration department's requirement of name checks for all naturalization applicants is proper even though Congress, which has ultimate authority in all immigration matters, does not require a name check at the naturalization stage.

'Some plaintiffs in these cases have been waiting over three years for a decision. ... Delaying their citizenship status does not eliminate the danger they may pose to the United States. ... It would seem that this group, estimated at 1 percent of all applicants, should be investigated more quickly, not more slowly, than everyone else,' Baylson wrote.

A spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which comes under the Department of Homeland Security, said the agency does not comment on pending legal matters.

But in testimony to a congressional subcommittee last month, USCIS director Emilio T. Gonzalez acknowledged the gravity of the backlog, not only for the 1 percent in apparent limbo, but for all the agency's cases.

While not specifically addressing the efficacy of third-time checks, he said USCIS is responding 'with three core elements': increased staffing; better technology; and streamlined procedures for some parts of the application process.

Still, he added, 'it is important that everyone appreciate what we will not do. We will not forsake integrity and sound decision-making in favor of increased productivity, or compromise national security.'