With an Arab-American rights group threatening mass court filings, a U.S. immigration spokesman said Tuesday that the government would change its naturalization procedures to stave off such legal challenges.
Lawyers say it's not uncommon for cases to be delayed for years, particularly for people from the Middle East, even though immigration officials are supposed to rule on naturalization petitions within 120 days after interviews.
To call attention to the problem, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was coordinating an effort by 40 attorneys to file federal court petitions on behalf of dozens of immigrants starting Tuesday.
Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, said Tuesday that "to avoid burdening the federal court with these cases," the agency would no longer schedule citizenship interviews until after background checks are complete.
The American-Arab committee said it was disappointed with the procedural change, which would not eliminate delays, but make it impossible for immigrants to fight them.
Bentley said only about 1 percent of naturalization petitions are not ruled on within 120 days. About 450,000 people are naturalized yearly, he said.
Immigration lawyer Ramsey Malkawi said he has about 14 clients facing long delays in their naturalization applications, including some who have waited five or six years.
"This is completely unacceptable," he said. "It's clearly a racial profiling issue."
Dr. Mohammad Attar, an Iraqi immigrant who has lived in the United States since 1991, petitioned for citizenship in November 2004. Six months later, he had an interview with immigration officials — then he waited. He was eventually cleared, but it wasn't until nearly a year after his interview. He was sworn in as a citizen April 14.
"My feeling about it is, it's OK, they can check, but it took too long," said Attar, a neonatologist on the faculty at the University of Michigan. "If they were concerned about something, they could have called, and I could have clarified something."