PHILADELPHIA – Many immigrants who have satisfied the requirements to become U.S. citizens have been illegally left in limbo for years, charged a lawsuit filed today in federal court in Philadelphia. As a result of system-wide delays in FBI “name checks,” hundreds or thousands of citizenship applications have been held up well past the 180-day deadline established by Congress.
"There is no reason anyone should have to wait so long for citizenship after meeting all the requirements," said John Grogan, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. "These are people who want to pledge their allegiance to the United States and participate fully in our society as U.S. citizens."
The class action lawsuit, Ignatyev v. Chertoff, was filed on behalf of Ukrainian immigrants Mikhail Ignatyev and Nataliya Petrovna Demidchik, and other immigrants facing processing delays. It seeks a halt to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) practice of delaying citizenship applications for months or even years because of the FBI’s failure to complete a name check of the applicants.
The suit was brought against government officials responsible for the prolonged delays: Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, USCIS Director Emilio T. Gonzalez, Philadelphia Acting USCIS District Director Evangelia Klapakis, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller.
The FBI has always conducted background checks of people applying for U.S. citizenship, but after 9/11 the USCIS began requiring an expanded FBI name check. Under the current system, applicants’ names are compared to names held in a broad array of FBI files, including the names of people who have never been suspected of a crime, such as witnesses and crime victims. When an applicant’s name is similar to a name in the FBI database, the FBI often will let the name check process stall for months or years. Further investigation would require a manual review of paper files that may be scattered across the country. Often the name in the FBI database that causes an initial “match” is a different person altogether from the applicant.Neither the USCIS nor the FBI imposes any deadlines on the FBI name check process.
Ignatyev and his wife were admitted to the United States in April 1999 as humanitarian immigrants from the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine under a law to help former Soviet citizens who had faced long-standing persecution because of their religion. His application for citizenship has been pending for over two years, although he has provided all the information requested by immigration officials.
Demidchik came to the U.S. in 2000 to join her daughter who is a U.S. citizen. Demidchik is 83 years old and disabled but tries to remain active through programs at a local senior center. Her citizenship application has been pending for over two-and-a-half years. In December 2005, she was scheduled for an examination, the final step in the path to citizenship. The USCIS cancelled the examination in January 2006. She has heard nothing since about her application. Demidchik desperately wants to become a U.S. citizen before she dies.
“Long-time residents who have paid their dues and are contributing to our country deserve a timely decision as required by law,” said Cecillia Wang, senior attorney for the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Our clients are among the hundreds or thousands of long-time residents around the country who have been waiting patiently for years. The time for fixing the system is long overdue.”
Attorneys on the lawsuit include Grogan and Ned Diver of Langer Grogan & Diver, P.C., Ayodele Gansallo and Judith Bernstein-Baker of HIAS & Council Migration Services of Philadelphia, Wang of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, Mary Catherine Roper and Witold J. Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and Kristine C. Mehok of Nationalities Services Center, Inc.