Inexcusable citizenship delays

Ten Asian and Middle Eastern legal immigrants have sued the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service in federal District Court. They charge their citizenship applications have been stymied in bureaucratic paperwork limbo for years, without any end in sight.

Federal law requires the authorities either to approve or deny every citizenship application within a reasonable deadline of 120 days from when a legal permanent resident passes the citizenship exam. Tell that to Southern California plaintiff Yousuf Bhagani, who immigrated from Pakistan 17 years ago and holds a green card, passed his citizenship exam in 2002 and has been waiting four years without any naturalization decision.

“In my heart, I’m already an American in every way,” Bhagani said. “Now I want to be able to fully participate as a citizen.”

These plaintiffs are not asking for any monetary damages from the U.S. government. They simply want a federal judge to review their case files and administer the oath of citizenship. This is not exactly the approach an

al Qaida mole would take.

The lawsuit also seeks to extend class-action status to other California immigrants who have been kept waiting more than six months without action on their citizenship applications. Several similar cases have been filed across the country in recent years.

With such a diverse population in the Bay Area, we are more than familiar with Catch-22 foul-ups by the citizenship agency. For years, this newspaper followed the story of the Plascencia family of San Mateo County. They entered America legally, were considered virtually irreplaceable by their employers, had U.S.-born children and bought a house in San Bruno. When they filed for citizenship, their papers disappeared into a void for two years and by the time the case re-emerged, the law had been changed and they were no longer considered eligible.

The Plascencias spent thousands of dollars on lawyers who mishandled their appeals. Several deportation dates were set for them, but with active backing by their church, the San Bruno City Council and numerous civic organizations, a last-minute delay was gained each time. Even the chief of the San Francisco regional immigration office spoke out in their favor. But Washington refused to make any exceptions even though the problem had originated from the agency’s own slowness.

Finally, with two weeks left on the Plascencia family’s final deportation order, U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos stepped in and got the proceedings permanently halted. People like the Plascencias and new plaintiffs are the kind of immigrants who want to play by the rules, obey U.S. law and become part of American society.

Therefore, it is only justice for the Citizenship and Immigration Service as well as the FBI (which must do the background checks) to obey the law and not penalize immigrants who play by the rules.

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