Rafed al Janabi, an Iraqi refugee living in Gaithersburg, was so grateful for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that he quit his restaurant job and joined the U.S. Army. He was sent last year to Iraq to translate for a Special Forces unit.
But he soon ran into an obstacle. Janabi lacked a clearance for classified work, something available only to U.S. citizens. To qualify for citizenship, he simply needs to pass a routine security check -- but it has dragged on for nearly two years.
Pfc. Rafed al Janabi, left, and Pfc. Kadhim al Kanani -- refugees from Iraq -- hope to become U.S. citizens but have waited more than 16 months for a routine security check to be finished.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
"I don't see any point. I'm holding a gun in my hand, defending this country. And I can't be a citizen?" asked Janabi, who said he was excluded from many Special Forces missions because of his lack of a clearance.
Janabi is one of a small but growing number of people facing extreme delays in becoming citizens or permanent residents, according to immigrant advocates. People from Arab and Muslim countries appear to be especially affected, many said.
It is occurring even as the overall backlog for immigration documents is shrinking. On average, it takes eight months to be naturalized, down from 14 months in October 2003, according to an immigration spokesman. But those whose names trigger a "hit" in the security check can be stuck in limbo for years.
Authorities say they have no alternative but to fully investigate when an applicant's name resembles one in the government's security databases. They note that they have been heavily criticized in the past when terrorists slipped through the system and gained immigration benefits.
"We will not compromise national security in the name of speeding someone through the application process," said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Immigrant advocates agree that dangerous people should not obtain citizenship. But they say many longtime U.S. residents with no ties to terrorism are being caught up in a poorly operating system.
"They're people who have nothing in their background that would require additional time. I do believe it's a glitch," said Dawn M. Lurie, an immigration lawyer in the Washington area.
Janabi said he is a case in point. He was brought to this country by the U.S. government as a refugee in 1995, after he fled Iraq. He is married to a Marine. When Janabi heard in 2003 that the Army was recruiting Arabic speakers as interpreters, he decided to volunteer, along with Iraqi friend Kadhim al Kanani, 35, of Centreville.
"We said: 'Sure. America helped us liberate our country. It's time to show appreciation,' " said Janabi, 34, who like Kanani is a private first class.
Typically, immigrants can file for citizenship after living for five years in the United States as legal permanent residents. Most eligible applicants become U.S. citizens within a few months of successfully completing an English-language and civics test. Janabi passed his citizenship exam in March 2003, and Kanani in October 2003, the men said.
But when they shipped out to Iraq in October 2004, their naturalization was still on hold because of the background checks. The men were puzzled, because they had passed an FBI security check to join the military.
They soon realized how frustrating it can be to lack citizenship. Janabi and Kanani said they could not join many Special Forces missions because they did not have security clearances. (A Special Forces spokesman, Maj. Rob Gowan, confirmed the men's service but declined further comment.) While citizenship is only one step in getting a clearance, the men were stung that they could not even begin the process.