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Would-be U.S. Citizens From Iraq Kept Waiting

Across the Northwest, hundreds of would-be American citizens wait in limbo because the FBI won't clear them to take the oath of citizenship. Iraqis in the Northwest voice particular irritation with slow background checks. Many of them fled here without passports and want to get family members out of Iraq. Correspondent Tom Banse has a profile of naturalization frustration.

Muhamed Qatrani and his brother came to the US as refugees. They grew up in Basra in southern Iraq. Remember how Saddam Hussein suppressed Shiites after the first Gulf War? 

 Muhamed Qatrani
Muhamed Qatrani passed his citizenship exam one-and-a-half years ago, but remains in limbo.

Muhamed Qatrani: “The uprising started in Basra. Then after four weeks of fighting and everything, we had to flee to Saudi Arabia for safe haven.”

Qatrani comes across as relaxed and friendly. His beard and mustache are neatly trimmed. The 36-year-old resettled in Seattle in 1994.

Muhamed Qatrani: “It’s just a beautiful city. It’s clean, the air is clean. Nice people. It’s a nice city to live in and raise a family.”

Qatrani married an American woman. Now he wants to become a US citizen. He doubts he’ll ever move back home.

Muhamed Qatrani: “The situation is not improving.”

Qatrani applied for citizenship last year. He passed his interview and civics test. He remembers the exact date.

Muhamed Qatrani: “I took my exam on May 11 last year and I passed the exam. I’m still waiting.”

In a normal case, a prospective citizen would take their oath within a week or two. But when this Iraqi immigrant calls for an update, the only answer he gets is, “The FBI is still checking on you.”

Muhamed Qatrani: “I know they have a lot of applications. There are a lot of things probably more important than checking on citizenship applications. But I mean, a year and a half, two years, three years, that’s a really long time. People, they put their life on hold when they apply for citizenship.”

Qatrani claims a high percentage of the Iraqis who came to this area during the 1990’s are in the same boat. He personally knows at least 60.

Long delays are not limited to Iraqis. The non-profit Northwest Immigrant Rights Project has also taken complaints from many Russians, Somalis, and Chinese. Legal director Matt Adams has tried to pry loose stalled naturalization cases.

Matt Adams: “If you’re really worried about national security, why are you letting these investigations drag on for five years? If somebody really presented a threat to our security, it’s best we find out in the next couple of weeks instead putting something off for five years. These are all people who have gone through and been admitted to the country.”

US Citizenship and Immigration Services explains that delays usually stem from an expanded FBI background check that was introduced after the 9/11 attacks. Agency spokesman Chris Bentley claims the “vast majority” of prospective citizens sail though the name check without problems.

Chris Bentley: “99% fully of all cases that we send to the FBI for checks come back within six months, which is well within the processing times we’ve set nationally for naturalization cases. The other 1%, however, can take multiple years to resolve. We find that unacceptable right now.”
Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced it’s looking for ways to streamline immigrant background checks. It reallocated $6 million to cut the processing backlog.

Refugee advocates in the Northwest say a solution can’t come soon enough. For passport-less Iraqis like Muhamed Qatrani, a big frustration is the inability to travel.
Muhamed Qatrani: “I was supposed to go see my family a year a half ago and I put it off, and put it off. A year ago, my dad passed away. I didn’t see him because I couldn’t travel.”
Qatrani works now as a refugee counselor and translator. He knows many refugees with wives and family back in Iraq who are desperate to get out. Without citizenship though, family reunification stays on hold.

On the Web:

US Citizenship and Immigration Service

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