NEW YORK -- Despite a 2002 promise from President Bush to put citizenship applications for immigrant members of the military on a fast track, some are finding themselves waiting months, or even years, because of bureaucratic backlogs.
One, Sgt. Kendell K. Frederick of the Army, who had tried three times to file for citizenship, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq as he returned from submitting fingerprints for his application.
About 7,200 service members or people who have been recently discharged have citizenship applications pending, but neither the Department of Defense nor Citizenship and Immigration Services keeps track of how long they have been waiting. Immigration lawyers and politicians say they have received a significant number of complaints about delays because of background checks, misplaced paperwork, confusion about deployments and other problems.
"I've pretty much given up on finding out where my paperwork is, what's gone wrong, what happened to it," said Abdool Habibullah, 27, a Guyanese immigrant who first applied for citizenship in 2005 upon returning from a tour in Iraq and was honorably discharged from the Marines as a sergeant. "If what I've done for this country isn't enough for me to be a citizen, then I don't know what is."
The long waits are part of a broader problem troubling the immigration service, which was flooded with 2.5 million applications for citizenship and visas last summer - twice as many as in the previous year - in the face of 66 percent fee increases that took effect July 30. Officials have estimated that it will take an average of 18 months to process citizenship applications from legal immigrants through 2010, up from seven months last year.
But service members and veterans are supposed to go to the head of the line. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush signed an executive order allowing noncitizens on active duty to file for citizenship right away, instead of having to first complete three years in the military. The federal government has since taken several steps to speed up the process, including training military officers to help service members fill out forms, assigning special teams to handle the paperwork, and allowing citizenship tests, interviews and ceremonies to take place overseas.
At the same time, post-Sept. 11 security measures, including tougher guidelines for background checks that are part of the naturalization process, have slowed things down.
The FBI, which checks the names of citizenship applicants against those in its more than 86 million investigative files, has been overwhelmed, handling an average of 90,000 name-check requests a week. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the FBI was asked to check 4.1 million names, at least half of them for citizenship and green card applications, a spokesman said.
"Most soldiers clear the checks within 30 to 60 days, or 60 to 90 days," said Leslie B. Lord, the Army's liaison to Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes citizenship applications. "But even the soldier with the cleanest of records, if he has a name that's very similar to one that's in the FBI bad-boy and bad-girl list, things get delayed."
Overall, 312,000 citizenship or green card applications are pending name checks, including 140,000 that have been waiting more than six months, immigration officials said. This month, immigration authorities eased background-check requirements for green cards, saying that if applicants had been waiting more than six months, they could be approved without an FBI check, and approvals could be revoked later "in the unlikely event" that troubling information was found.
After hearing complaints from at least a half-dozen service members over the past three months, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York has drafted a bill to create a special clearinghouse to ensure that applications from active and returning members of the military are processed quickly and smoothly. A spokesman said several other lawmakers reported hearing many similar stories.
"These are men and women who are risking their lives for us," Schumer said in a telephone interview. "They've met all the requirements for citizenship, they have certainly proved their commitment to our country, and yet they could lose their lives while waiting for a bureaucratic snafu to untangle."
Frederick, a 21-year-old immigrant from Trinidad, would be awarded citizenship only posthumously, on the day of his burial. He is one of more than 90 immigrant service members to be naturalized after losing their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan.
After his death, the immigration service began accepting enlistment fingerprints with service members' citizenship applications, as long as applicants authorized the military to share their files with immigration officials. A bill to make such sharing automatic has been passed by the House and is pending a final Senate vote.