ST. LOUIS – A group of Muslim immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship sued federal officials on Friday, claiming they've been left in limbo for months or years because of slow background checks.
The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 33 plaintiffs who have settled in Missouri from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Pakistan, Somalia and other countries. It said some have had to wait more than four years to be cleared by the FBI, violating time limits.
By law, a decision on processing must be made within 120 days of the immigrant's interview, the last step in becoming a citizen, attorney Jim Hacking said.
The lawsuit seeks to have a federal judge enforce the time limits on name checks for those being naturalized.
The delays prevent the citizen candidates from voting and traveling abroad for fear they will be harassed upon return by customs officials, said Kamal Yassin, who heads the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The FBI does name, fingerprint and background checks for every applicant for naturalization. The agency said similar names can result in false hits that take time to resolve.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service said it no longer schedules interviews with immigrants until they're cleared by the FBI.
The lawsuit names Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Jonathan Scharfen, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, among others.
Department of Justice spokesman Charles Miller said the agency would review the complaint and determine how to respond in court.
Spokesman Paul Bresson said the FBI gets 4 million name check requests a year, half of which come from the naturalization agency, USCIS. He said about 85 percent of cases are completed in 60 days.
"It boils down to volume versus resource," he said. "We have not had enough resources to address it."
The FBI increased fees to allow the agency to hire more record-checkers. A new central records complex under construction also should help, he said.
"Before 9-11, we were not required to do background checks on every single applicant," said Marilu Cabrera, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, explaining that only certain types of applications were checked before 9-11.
"We have piled a lot of work on the FBI, but we're not going to naturalize someone without knowing they have cleared the background checks."