Legal Immigrants in Limbo: Backlog in System Creates Uncertainty


The talk about legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants confounds Hussein Gaas, a legal immigrant from Somalia. Like hundreds of thousands of other would-be U.S. citizens, his application for naturalization has been pending for more than a year.

The 37-year-old Eden Prairie resident was hoping to celebrate this Independence Day as a U.S. citizen. With his hopes dashed and feeling uncertain about his future, Gaas said he’s left with no option.

“Before [Congress] worries about people who just crossed the border, they should take care of those of us who obeyed the rules,” he lamented.

Adding to his frustration is the lack of information about the reason of the delay. The only thing he knows is that he passed the naturalization interview he had in April last year, and that his application stalled in the FBI`s “Name Check Program.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) implemented more stringent background checks for citizenship and green card applications. But that has produced a massive backlog and indefinite delays.

In his annual report to Congress, Prakash Khatri, the ombudsman of the USCIS wrote in May that 329,160 FBI name-check cases were pending. Of those, about 104,600 had been in the system for more than three months but less than a year. About 51,497 applicants are pending between one and two years. About 17 percent of applicants had been waiting more than two years.

Khatri told Congress that the FBI name checks “may be the single biggest obstacle to the timely and efficient delivery of immigration benefits.”

USCIS is now the largest client of the FBI, which processed more than 3.4 million name checks last year, according to its website.

Like many people facing the same problem, Gaas sought help from congressional offices. Five months ago, he visited the office of Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., who represents his district. Because of the FBI name checks, Ramstad’s staff told him that there’s nothing they can do for him.

But experts say that backlog problems can only be solved legislatively.

“If Congress doesn’t intervene, the problem could conceivably worsen,” said Kim Hunter, an immigration attorney in St. Paul.

Hunter noted that most delays are affecting people who filed citizenship applications, but were not interviewed yet. That’s because a federal statute requires USCIS to make a decision in 120 days after interviewing a citizenship candidate.

In that case, many people like Gaas are challenging the indefinite delay in courts. Class action lawsuits have been filed in a number of states across the country. Hunter said the cases she represented in courts were mostly decided in favor of the applicant.

Agencies involved in immigration processes don’t comment on specific cases, but a statement on the USCIS website praises the agency for making considerable progress in backlog reduction.

Delays in citizenship applications are so pervasive that even a 72-year-old grandmother in St. Paul had to wait for years before she finally received approval early this year. Sinattu T., an Ethiopian immigrant who didn’t want to use her last name because members of her family are still in the name check process, was surprised that her name triggered a security concern for the government.

“I can’t even drive a car or fly by myself,” she said.

Hunter said people who followed the language of the law, who then have to go through this “extremely blunt rule…are feeling rejected.”

Even if some of these people pose a national security threat, “wouldn’t it be wise to take them off the streets faster?” she asks.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., recently introduced legislation that would eliminate the backlog in six years. But the prospects for his bill all but died with the collapse of the immigration bill in the Senate last week.