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Why You Might Not Be a Citizen…Yet

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July 31, 2009

Citizenship. It is one of the most coveted privileges the United States government bestows. Despite its critical importance, tens of thousands of immigrants born abroad seeking to naturalize have run into severe administrative backlogs since 2002. These individuals have satisfied the requirements to become U.S. citizens but nevertheless have been illegally left in limbo—some for up to four years, well past the 180-day window established by Congress for processing the applications. The primary culprit of these backlogs is the slow processing of FBI "name checks," an extensive background check conducted for every naturalization applicant.

Through multiple individual and class action lawsuits, the ACLU and its many colleagues have represented many individuals who have spent virtually their entire lives in the U.S. and simply want to pledge their allegiance to this country. In response to the litigation pressure, Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) and the FBI, the two federal agencies involved in administering naturalization, came up with a provisional solution to the problem: the March 2008 Joint Business Plan. The plan laid out various milestones by which the FBI would reduce and eventually eliminate the backlog.

In addition to litigation, in April 2007, the ACLU submitted a request to the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act seeking information about the cause and extent of the delays. The FBI provided documents responsive to the request on May 2009. These records provide insight into several significant aspects of the name check delay. Specifically, the documents reveal that a significant cause of the delay was a re-check of 2.2 million names in 2002, following a significant expansion of the name check protocol. The documents also highlight the steps CIS and FBI are undertaking to address and alleviate the backlog. The documents are available here.

The ACLU is continuing to monitor this pressing issue to ensure that the government is on target with its milestones and to prevent any new delays from developing. Let us know if you've experienced any delays of more than 180 days (PDF).

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