After living in the United States for 15 years, Mohammad Al Muttan, a 35-year-old grocery store manager in St. Louis, Missouri, was ready to become a citizen. Al Muttan's mother, brothers, uncle, wife, and four children were already citizens, and Al Muttan, a legal permanent resident, considered the US his home. But a year after he sent off his application for citizenship last February, he still hadn't received a decision from the federal government. Eventually, he visited a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office to follow up.
"I asked the lady at the office why my application was taking so long, since the process usually takes four months," said Al Muttan, a native of the West Bank, in an interview with VICE. "She asked for my driver's license and looked me up, and said the delay had to do with my name and where I was coming from."
Now, Al Muttan is one of 13 Muslims suing USCIS for unlawfully delaying their citizenship applications for discriminatory reasons. The plaintiffs, who filed their lawsuit last week, are among thousands who have been subject to a security screening called the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CARRP), which allows USCIS to delay immigration proceedings if "national security concerns are raised." Although CARRP's guidelines don't explicitly target Muslims, immigration advocates claim the program relies on religious, ethnic, and associational profiling and stalls immigration decisions for people who pose no threat to national security.
"Through this program, Muslims who are completely innocent are placed on a list and held to a much higher standard for immigration benefits," James Hacking, lead attorney for the 13 plaintiffs, told VICE. "Their cases drag on for years and years without getting adjudicated, and no one gives them answers about their case status."
The lawsuit, filed in US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, claims that USCIS wrongfully "blacklisted plaintiffs as national security concerns, when in fact they are not, and illegally prohibited them from upgrading their immigration status, despite their eligibility to do so."
"Plaintiffs are law-abiding, long-term residents of the United States who meet the statutory criteria to be naturalized as US citizens," the suit states. "Despite this, USCIS has refused [their] applications in accordance with applicable legal criteria."
By their own estimates, USCIS typically approves or denies citizenship applications within six months and the agency is required by Congress to process immigration applications within 180 days of the initial filing date. But Hacking says he's defended dozens of Muslim clients who have waited much longer.
"I've been filing lawsuits like this the last eight years. Eight years ago I filed a lawsuit on behalf of 37 Muslims and within three months, all the cases that had been languishing for years [finally received interviews with USCIS]," Hacking said. "I had one woman from Bosnia waiting nine years for citizenship, and another woman waiting four years for her husband to get a visa to come to the United States."
"If you're from a country known for terrorist activity, which is many Middle Eastern countries, you will likely be deemed a national security concern." — Jennie Pasquarella
Under CARRP, which was introduced in 2008, any individual who applies for immigration benefits (including a visa, asylum, permanent residency, and citizenship)must be screened for concerns of national security. If someone is flagged as a potential risk to national security, USCIS suspends their application proceedings until the agency can definitively confirm that the applicant poses no such risk.
The problem, according to immigration advocates, is that CARRP also determines what constitutes a national security concern—a category that is "extraordinarily overly broad," said Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants' rights for the ACLU of California.
Anyone on the federal government's terrorist watch list—a list of more than one million names—is automatically sent for an additional review through CARRP. (The guidelines for the watch list are broad, and include things like destruction of government property and association with groups that may or may not be terrorist organizations.) In addition, Pasquarella said anyone with ties to countries associated with terrorism has a high likelihood of being placed in the program.
"If you're from a country known for terrorist activity, which is many Middle Eastern countries, you will likely be deemed a national security concern," Pasquarella told VICE. She also claimed that men from such countries were even more likely to be targeted.
Additionally, Pasquarella claims that people who have traveled to or sent money to the Middle East, which is common for US residents who still have family in those countries, can also be dubbed security risks.
"When you apply for an immigration benefit, they run your name against all these databases. Your name could come up because you attended a mosque where the FBI got all the names of attendees," Pasquarella said of the government's broad reach. "I had a case in which a client was subject to the CARRP program because he gave an interview to the FBI about an Islamic charity. He wasn't involved at all in the charity, but the simple fact he'd given that interview was the reason he was subject to the CARRP program."
While CARRP reviews usually cause delays in citizenship and visa applications, the program can delay a government decision indefinitely in more extreme cases, according to the ACLU.
"The agency will sit on an application for as long as possible. They'll hold the application because the program says they can't approve it and if the individual is eligible they won't deny it," Pasquarella told me.
A USCIS spokesperson declined to speak about the current lawsuit because the agency does not comment on pending litigation. USCIS also declined to respond to other questions about CARRP, including the allegations that it is discriminatory.
Meanwhile, Al Muttan is waiting for his lawsuit to move forward, in the hopes that he can finally call himself a citizen of the country he considers his home.
"I would love to be an American citizen. I want to vote, and I want the freedom," Al Muttan told VICE. "I hope that they treat my application like everyone else's. I belong to here, not anywhere else."
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