The Name Game

Saturday, June 14, 2008

WHAT'S IN a name? For Ali Rahimian, it may be the difference between a quick path to citizenship and a two-year sentence to immigration purgatory. Dr. Rahimian has lived in the Washington area for 17 years, and, among other useful pursuits, has helped operate a free clinic for people who lack medical insurance. Two years ago, Dr. Rahimian, who was born in Iran, applied to become a U.S. citizen. His application was sent to the FBI for what should have been a routine background check, and Dr. Rahimian said he has not heard from the bureau since.

The applications of hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants such as Dr. Rahimian are mired in FBI bureaucracy, according to a recent audit by the Justice Department inspector general. The audit found that the FBI's National Name Check Program, designed to be a security vetting of immigrants applying to be citizens, is relying on outdated technology and poorly trained workers. Some immigrants awaiting resolution are denied the right to work or to study. And, significant in an election year, they are denied the chance to vote.

More than 300,000 citizenship requests were pending as of March, according to the audit. Although the FBI handles 90 percent of these claims in less than a month, some take as long as three years. The backlog exists although the FBI increased its name-check workforce significantly in recent months. One unnamed FBI employee told investigators that the workforce increase, and other measures the FBI has taken to reduce the backlog, are "small Band-Aids" applied to the problem.

The problem isn't just the size of the FBI's workforce, it's the agency's overall approach. The FBI doesn't have a sound way to measure the program's effectiveness, so it doesn't know whether an elaborate name-check process prevents terrorism. To improve the efficiency of the process, the FBI should implement the inspector general's recommendations, including a formal training curriculum and quality assurance measures. Most important, the FBI should update its name-matching tool, which relies on an algorithm that was developed in the early 1900s.

Fortunately, the FBI is realizing it cannot continue business as usual. Michael Cannon, chief of the name-check program, said the FBI is receptive to the audit and is complying with many of the inspector general's recommendations. Since March, the FBI has reduced the number of immigrants waiting more than a year by two-thirds, to 40,000, Mr. Cannon said. He hopes to reduce that number to zero by November. These changes can't come too soon. The FBI has been punishing the immigrants who are most deserving of citizenship: those who play by the rules.

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