For six years, Ali Al-Lati has worked with the U.S. military, teaching soldiers simple Iraqi words and commands, telling them about the cultural mores of his native land and offering advice on how to deal with the extreme weather they’ll face in Iraq.
He’s a frequent visitor at the U.S. Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., and has passed the background checks necessary to work for a Department of Defense contractor.
But to another branch of the government, Al-Lati is still an unknown. The Iraqi refugee is one of millions waiting for the FBI to clear his name — a necessary step for U.S. citizenship.
Now, he’s turning to the federal courts for help. He’s one of dozens around the United States suing the government because the FBI has yet to complete a process called a name check.
“I came to this country because I want to live here. I work hard here. I love this country,” said Al-Lati, who’s learned English and passed the prerequisite citizenship test. He’s even passed a background check by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Both the FBI and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acknowledge the delays are a problem. About 150,000 citizenship applications nationwide currently have a wait time longer than six months, said Maria Elena Garcia-Upson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Dallas.
“It’s unacceptable, frankly, to have to wait this long. The agency understands that,” said Upson, who said the agency is trying to find ways to expedite the process. “But you have to understand that USCIS receives millions of applications a year. One percent get hung up on additional name checks.”
'Long lines and backlogs'
The FBI completes about 62,000 name checks every week, with close to 27,000 new requests coming from USCIS alone on a weekly basis, said Trent Pedersen, a spokesman with the bureau’s Salt Lake City office.
The initial name checks are done electronically — names are entered into a database to see if the FBI has gathered any information on them in the past.
But even information on similar names yield results, or “hits,” and each hit has to be investigated so that information can be forwarded on to USCIS.
Not all the information is stored electronically — there are paper files in many of the bureau’s 265 offices nationwide — and tracking down the reason for each hit can take months, he said.
The wait may get worse before it gets better, warns Audrey Singer, an immigration fellow with the Brookings Institute. As lawmakers grapple over the best ways to ensure a secure nation — creating stricter laws on everything from green cards to passports to citizenship applications — agencies such as the FBI and Department of Homeland Security are bound to get more bogged down, she said.
“I can see future long lines and backlogs if the government doesn’t prepare properly for these changes,” she said.
Questions with few answers
Lawsuits are becoming more common, and would-be citizens in several states including Utah, California, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Idaho have sued in the hope of speeding up the process.
Al-Lati filed his lawsuit in May, after waiting nearly five years for his name check to be completed. Both Al-Lati and his attorney maintain Al-Lati has a clean record. He keeps a handful of certificates of commendation from various military groups thanking him for his service as proof.
“We don’t know why it’s taking so long,” Al-Lati said. “I asked, ’Did I do something wrong to make you hold my case?’ They say no. I get depressed every time I am thinking about it.”
Al-Lati frequently stops by the local USCIS office to check on his application status. He hopes that once he becomes a citizen, he can find work on a U.S. military base in Iraq, interpreting for the government and serving his new country.
In Iraq, Al-Lati said he risked execution when, at the age of 18, he refused to join Saddam Hussein’s army and invade Kuwait. Within months he was captured by the Republican Guard and shot in the leg during his arrest, he said. But the judge in his case was lenient, sentencing him to ten years in prison instead of death.
Six months after his incarceration, the first Gulf War began and coalition forces began bombing the military base that contained Al-Lati’s prison.
In the chaos, a guard took pity on the prisoners, unlocking the prison doors and telling them to run. After taking part in an unsuccessful uprising against Hussein, Al-Lati ended up in an American refugee camp where he lived for six years before coming to the United States, beginning his odyssey with American bureaucracy.
“I’ve waited until now, when I am 35 years old,” Al-Lati said. “Am I going to have to wait for citizenship when I am 60 years old? I went to the courts because this is the only way to do it.”