FBI Name Check Cited In Naturalization Delays

By Spencer S. Hsu and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 17, 2007

Jin Ju Yoo, a stay-at-home mother who immigrated from South Korea in 1990 and applied for U.S. citizenship in 2002, would seem a minimal security risk. So say friends in Clarksburg, Md., where Yoo, 36, plays drums at a Presbyterian church and raises three children with her husband, a flooring contractor. Her husband and children are citizens.

The would-be American is still waiting for approval, however, because the FBI has not completed a security check of her name against its more than 86 million investigative files. Neither the bureau nor the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency will say why.

Since 2005, the backlog of legal U.S. immigrants whose applications for naturalization and other benefits are stuck on hold awaiting FBI name checks has doubled to 329,160, prompting a flood of lawsuits in federal courts, bureaucratic finger-pointing in Washington and tough scrutiny by 2008 presidential candidates.

At a time when Congress is intensely focused on border security, the growing backlog is one of the most visible signs of the U.S. immigration system's breakdown, current and former government officials said.

Unexplained delays in determining whether longtime residents pose a threat promise neither justice to the applicants nor added security to the country, they said. They blame bureaucratic mismanagement and poor coordination at the FBI and the immigration service, and the inefficient methods of screening files for genuine security threats.

In his annual report to Congress last week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) ombudsman Prakash I. Khatri called the backlog of FBI name checks "unacceptable from the standpoint of national security and immigration benefits processing."

Calling the delays the "most pervasive problem" in processing, Khatri concluded that they "may increase the risk to national security by prolonging the time a potential criminal or terrorist remains in the country." He concluded that the agency should end or sharply narrow its use of name checks.

As Dawn Lurie, a Vienna immigration lawyer, put it: "If there's a security reason [for the delay], then what are those people still doing here? . . . And if there isn't a security reason, then why are we making them wait for so long?"

The withholding of citizenship -- and the continuation of the attendant restrictions on voting, employment, travel, reunification with family members, and access to credit and federal assistance programs -- replicates on a far vaster and more damaging scale the inconvenience rendered to travelers who are mistakenly placed on no-fly lists because of spelling confusions or errors, civil liberties lawyers said.

Some lawyers warn that such burdens may be discriminatory if they fall disproportionately on people perceived to be from Muslim countries or from ethnic groups whose names are transliterated from non-Roman alphabets. But others representing individuals in the Washington area or participating in four national class-action lawsuits over the delays say the most distinctive -- and frustrating -- feature is their seeming randomness, and the refusal of agencies to say when checks will be done or why problems have arisen.

Seong Ho Kang, 40, a computer engineer from South Korea who lives in Centreville, has waited for more than a year for his FBI check, possibly because the bureau since 2001 has intensified the scrutiny of immigrants with high-technology backgrounds. In frustration, Kang submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for any records the FBI might have on him. The bureau promptly replied that it had none. "If they can tell that to me, why can't they tell it to immigration?" Kang asked.

Donald Kerr, 60, the Jamaican-born lead singer of the Wailers, Bob Marley's reggae group, applied for U.S. citizenship more than three years ago after marrying a U.S. citizen. Kerr, a British citizen who goes by the stage name Junior Marvin, lives in Alexandria. "I'm not trying to put Homeland Security down. I mean, they have to do what they have to do," he said, sitting in his basement amid a mass of guitars, amplifiers and sound-mixing equipment. "But it does seem like a long time to check up on a musician."

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