For Citizenship Delayed, 10 Taking U.S. to Court

Times Staff Writer

Serving in the military has been the fast track for U.S. citizenship for many immigrants since the 2001 terrorist attacks. But not for Mustafa Aziz, an Afghan and Irvine resident who served a four-year hitch in the Air Force.

While on duty in 2003, he applied for citizenship and passed the naturalization exam the following year. More than two years later, Aziz is still waiting to pledge allegiance to the country he served, and he is turning to the courts for help.

Aziz is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union and a Muslim civil rights group plan to file today on behalf of 10 Southern California immigrants who have been waiting two years or more for their citizenship. The lawsuit, to be filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, accuses government officials of illegally delaying their background checks and allowing applications to linger indefinitely.

The lawsuit says federal law requires government officials to approve or deny a citizenship application 120 days after an immigrant passes the naturalization exam. The suit asks that a federal judge review the files and administer the oath of citizenship. It also asks the court to certify it as a class action and include all immigrants who have been waiting six months or more for naturalization after filing applications at the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.


Aziz, 25, said he was angered after watching President Bush last week attend a ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where three wounded soldiers were granted U.S. citizenship. White House officials said more than 26,000 active-duty members of the military have become citizens since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks under an executive order Bush signed in July 2002, which makes them eligible for immediate naturalization.

Foreign nationals can enlist in the U.S. military if they have a green card, meaning they have received permanent resident status.

Aziz, who served as a supply specialist from 2000 to 2004, said it hurt to watch Bush congratulate the soldiers.

“These guys went to Iraq and were injured, and they deserved to be awarded citizenship. I’ve been going to [the citizenship] office for three years, and my case hasn’t gotten any attention,” he said.

ACLU attorney Ranjana Natarajan said Aziz could have become a U.S. citizen before he turned 18 if his parents had petitioned for him when they were naturalized. His three younger siblings were born in this country.

Aziz came to the U.S. when he was 18 months old. He has a degree in aeronautics and holds a private pilot’s license. He wants to be a commercial pilot.

Sharon Rummery, spokeswoman in San Francisco for the Citizenship and Immigration Service, said about 1% of citizenship applicants wait longer than six months for the standard background checks to be completed.

“I have no idea why they take longer, but we are required to send these names to the FBI. When [the completed background check] comes back to us, we move the file forward,” Rummery said.


Kenny Smith, FBI spokesman in Los Angeles, said background checks were done by agents in Washington. He said he could not find out Monday why some background checks take longer to complete.

According to the lawsuit, some applicants have received conflicting information about the background checks. Yousuf Bhaghani, a Pakistani, said the FBI told him that his background check was completed in December 2002, but immigration officials told him it was still pending.

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the lengthy delays were due to “either incompetence or discrimination.” The council, the ACLU’s partner in the lawsuit, referred the 10 plaintiffs to the organization.

“Whether incompetence or discrimination, the process needs to be fixed. Either way, Muslims will not accept any longer being treated as second-class citizens by this administration,” Ayloush said.


Rummery, the immigration service spokeswoman, denied that the government was discriminating against Islamic applicants or purposely delaying their paperwork.

Smith said the FBI office in Los Angeles had also received calls from non-Muslims complaining about delays.

Aziz said he had wondered if his application had been singled out for extra scrutiny because he is Muslim.

“I pray that’s not the case. I understand there is a process, and I want the government to follow it. I ask for no special consideration. I just want the government to follow the laws they have made,” he said.