Alia Ahmadi had every reason to believe she'd be granted United States citizenship. The 73-year-old Afghan woman, who emigrated here to be with her children in Fremont, passed her naturalization interview in 2003 and was told to expect her oath notice within a month. Four years later, she is still waiting. The reason? The FBI is running a name check. "If I'm somebody to worry about, why wait four years?" says Ahmadi, who struggles with anxiety and depression as a result of her long wait. "I feel very heartbroken. I didn't want to be a stranger here."
Ahmadi is not alone in feeling the burn of stricter background checks enforced after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Three lawsuits are pending across the country over delays like hers, including a class-action suit filed in San Francisco last month by the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, the ACLU of Northern California, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Asian Law Caucus.
That lawsuit calls for time limits on the citizenship process, as well as a resolution for eight Bay Area residents, including Ahmadi. While each of the plaintiffs passed their exams more than two years ago, Ahmadi's situation is particularly striking. "She's basically a housebound grandmother," notes Cecilia D. Wang, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "There's no conceivable reason for her case to be caught up in an FBI name check."
Applications for naturalization no matter whose cannot be processed without clearance from the FBI, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. For its part, the FBI says the long delays have to do with the number of name checks that have been required since the 2001 attacks. But both agencies declined to comment on how a name check could possibly take up to four years to complete.
This is a story Ahmadi has heard many times over. "Every time we call, they say, 'You have to wait,'" says her son, 46-year-old Basheer Ahmadi. Along with dozens of phone calls to the immigration agency, the family has made three trips to its offices in San Francisco. "We never even got a letter that said her case is in progress," Basheer says.
Ahmadi, who came to the United States under her son's sponsorship, recently welcomed visitors to the comfortable home she shares with him. Sitting in an overstuffed leather chair with her hands clasped, Ahmadi is tiny. She wears a white hijab and a worried look, which brightens when her granddaughter charges into the living room and leaps up beside her. Four-year-old Taqwa was born about the time Ahmadi applied for citizenship.
In 1984, when she fled war-torn Afghanistan with her late husband and daughter, Ahmadi, like most refugees, was looking for some peace and a better life. "We left everything and took only our bodies to save ourselves," she said, speaking in Farsi as her daughter, 36-year-old Mahfooza Ahmadi, translated. "We came to the US because this is a democratic country where a person can do whatever they want to express their freedom."
Ever since she arrived in Fremont in 1986, Ahmadi has dreamed of becoming a citizen. Her late husband was granted citizenship several months after he applied in 1997. All six of her children and more than twenty grandchildren are now citizens. "Of all my family, I'm the only one," Ahmadi said. "Everything that belongs to me is here. This is my home."
By law, according to her attorneys, Citizenship and Immigration Services must grant or deny an application within 120 days of the naturalization exam. They call indefinite lags in the processing of applications unconstitutional. Delays of more than six months are rare, says Sharon Rummery, a San Francisco-based spokeswoman for CIS. Of the more than 730,000 naturalization applications filed last year, less than 1 percent took more than six months, she notes. Of course, that 1 percent represents 7,300 people.
The process by which those thousands of names are flagged leaves plenty of room for error. First, the FBI searches both its main and reference files, meaning the names of any individual under investigation, or who is considered an associate or witness, are retrieved. Any name connected to a FBI record is then put through a secondary search. This process typically takes no more than two months; about 10 percent of all the people submitted for name checks come up as "possibly being the subject of an FBI record," according to the agency's press office.
At this point, the bureau pulls the records in question, a fairly simple task when they are electronic. But if it's a paper record or if there's more than one "hit" on a name things get more complicated. Agents have to locate the files, which may be stored at any one of more than 265 locations across the country. When and if the documents are found, they are scanned into a database and analyzed. "Until it clears, we can't do anything," says Rummery, who won't specifically discuss Ahmadi's case because of the pending lawsuit.
According to the FBI, delays usually result not from the time it takes to perform an individual name check but from the sheer number of names that make it to the document round. So where does that leave a law-abiding would-be citizen who has the misfortune of having a common surname?
Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the FBI's name check policy was never mandated by Congress or set down in a formal statute. "It's something they simply started doing," Wang says. "The government just started this mysterious and somewhat secret process."
Both Citizenship and Immigration Services and the FBI declined to comment on how the name check became a regular security procedure after November 2002. According to the FBI, 2.7 million name check requests were submitted by CIS in December 2002, a month after the internal policy took effect. Processing these residual requests, along with the millions submitted annually by more than seventy federal and state agencies, takes time, says Catherine Milhoan, a FBI spokeswoman.
Last summer, the House voted down an amendment introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, that would have provided $40 million for the FBI's National Name Check Program. "Law-abiding immigrants should not have to wait years for their approval, and neither should would-be terrorists be allowed years of sanctuary in our country," the congressman stated in a press release.
Ahmadi, who once felt isolated in her situation, realizes now that she's not alone. But most of the Bay Area individuals caught up in such delays are men, according to Azima Subedar, civil rights coordinator for the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Last summer, CAIR launched an outreach campaign in the Muslim community and documented 73 cases of people waiting on an FBI name check. Of these, only nine were women, and even fewer reported having a criminal record. "On the whole, these are people who have not done anything wrong," Subedar says.
In their quest for answers, Ahmadi's family members appealed to Fremont Representative Pete Stark, who placed a call on the family's behalf to Citizenship and Immigration Services, and was told that Ahmadi's name check was pending. Ahmadi admits that she began to feel the government has something against her. One of her biggest fears, she says, is getting kicked out of the United States. "I have nothing in Afghanistan, none of my kids or my sisters and brothers," she says. "What am I going to do there?"
Without a US passport, she's afraid to visit relatives abroad, including a brother in Germany, who has cancer. She hasn't seen him in more than twenty years. "He calls and tells her he just wants to see her one more time," says daughter Mahfooza. "We applied for a re-entry permit, but it takes forever."
Apparently, when it comes to bureaucratic gridlock, Ahmadi's homeland has nothing over the United States.