by Samuel G Freedman for The New York Times
September 4, 2011
FALLS CHURCH, Va. � Early one morning last June, fully two hours before his appointment, Mustafa Salih arrived at a federal office here in the Washington suburbs. He wore the new suit he had bought for the occasion. A friend, accompanying him, carried a camera to record the event. Mr. Salih had not slept the previous night.
High emotion was not supposed to be the province of a middle-aged accountant, which was exactly what Mr. Salih was. But on that particular morning, he was scheduled to be sworn in as an American citizen, the culmination of a process that had begun when he immigrated from Sudan in 1991.
The process had tested his patience and nerves. He had received his green card as a permanent legal resident in 1995. He held a master’s degree and worked in a white-collar profession. In the two years since filing his petition for naturalization, he had passed the required history test, sat for the required interview, and submitted the required fingerprints, only to be told in a form letter from the Department of Homeland Security that he could not become a citizen until he cleared an unspecified “background check.”
By this morning in June 2008, however, Mr. Salih had been assured by his lawyer that everything was O.K. He had an appointment for a 10 a.m. swearing-in ceremony in an office of Citizenship and Immigration Services, a unit of the Homeland Security Department. A staff member walked him to a second-floor conference room to join about 25 other citizens-in-waiting.
Only then and there, as Mr. Salih, 44, recalled in a recent interview, did a different officer call his name and ask him to step out of line. Taking Mr. Salih to another room, the officer told him, “Your name isn’t clear yet.” When Mr. Salih asked why, the officer said he did not know.
Now, 15 months later, Mr. Salih remains in limbo. He remains there despite efforts by his mosque, a large interfaith coalition in northern Virginia, and even one of Virginia’s senators, Jim Webb, to get an answer from homeland security officials.
“Every two weeks, I go to immigration,” Mr. Salih said. “Every time, they tell me everything is fine, except for the background check. I’ve become so familiar, the officers recognize me. They ask me, ‘You still coming here?’ ”
In his anxiety and frustration, Mr. Salih happens to have a great deal of company, and thereby hangs a broader tale. About 150 members of his mosque, the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, have come forward in recent months with similar stories of lengthy delays in federal decisions on their applications for citizenship, green cards or political asylum. In virtually every case, the applicants have received only vague explanations about continuing name or background checks.
It is hardly news when the bureaucratic wheels grind slowly and inefficiently in responding to immigrants seeking to become fully legal residents or citizens. But, at least to Mr. Salih and other members of the mosque here, the fact that these cryptic delays predominantly involve Muslims seems no mere coincidence.
“The issue is larger than the backlog,” said Shaik Shaker Elsayed, imam of Dar Al-Hijrah. “We are told it is a result of bureaucracy. Our experience has told us that is not the case.”
Those people include Amal and Mohamed Ahmed, Egyptian immigrants who have been seeking green cards since 2001. When their eldest son died in Egypt, they dared not attend his funeral, for fear of not being readmitted to the United States.
Those people include Hazim Alasad, an Iraqi-born contractor who has lived in the United States since 1992. Most recently, his company did projects for the American forces in Baghdad, earning Mr. Alasad a handwritten thank-you letter from a Marine general, John R. Allen, to “my good friend.” Yet while Mr. Alasad’s wife and two children received citizenship years ago, he continues to be strung along.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, Sara Kuban, wrote in an e-mail message that its immigration unit “treats every applicant for immigration benefits or services with dignity, courtesy and fairness, and decides each case as quickly as possible based on the evidence provided.”
Senator Webb does not believe that the Muslim applicants were singled out because of their religion, said his press secretary, Kimberly Hunter. But because Mr. Webb views “legal immigration applications as bread and butter for our constituents,” Ms. Hunter continued, he has written to the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, about many specific cases, and he has sought, unsuccessfully thus far, a meeting with her.
This much is clear, and, it must be said, curious: The interfaith group that includes Dar Al-Hijrah, Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, includes 45 congregations with a total of 125,000 members in suburban Washington. Yet except for about a half-dozen Ghanaian Christians, the only cases of immigration delay it has found involve the Muslim members of the Falls Church mosque.
Far from making their plight a parochial issue, only of interest to the local Islamic community, the specific clustering has provoked advocacy across denominational lines in Voice, as the interfaith group is commonly known. During the current Ramadan holiday, a delegation of clergy members including a Catholic priest, Unitarian and Episcopal ministers, two black Christian pastors and a Reform Jewish rabbi convened at the mosque to explain why Mustafa Salih’s case, among 150 others, has become theirs.
“The Torah portion this last week told us, ‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue,’ ” said Rabbi Brett R. Isserow of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria. “The pursuit of justice is the pursuit for justice for all people. And where people have put in their papers and done everything they’re required to do, it’s a matter of injustice when they are targeted or delayed.”