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Waiting for citizenship 

A Charlotte man hopes lawsuit gets feds attention

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, federal officials have scrutinized citizenship applications in an effort to weed out potential terrorists. But one technique — name-checking would-be citizens through a slew of databases — has led to an immigration backlog that's left in limbo potentially millions of applicants already in the United States.

One Charlotte man has found himself caught in the bureaucratic crunch. And he's taken action the American way: He's filed a lawsuit.

Hassan Elannani, principal of Charlotte Islamic Academy, sued federal immigration and homeland security officials on Nov. 20 to take action on the citizenship application he filed June 12, 2002.

A Moroccan citizen, Elannani has lived legally in the United States since 1997, earning a Ph.D. in educational administration from Illinois State University. His wife was granted citizenship in 1995, and his children are U.S.-born citizens, court papers say. But until he's naturalized, he's limited in what jobs he can take, and he can't bring his mother to the United States.

Elannani declined an interview request, as did his attorneys, Katherine Lewis Parker, legal director for the N.C. American Civil Liberties Union, and Cynthia Aziz of Charlotte.

But at least one man who knows him says there's no reason why Elannani wouldn't make a good citizen. Jibril Hough says Elannani is a low-key educator who poses no threat. "He's highly respected in the community," says Hough, a frequent spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte. "I don't see what the problem would be outside of his faith."

The backlogs in citizenship applications aren't likely to cease anytime soon -- USCIS head Emilio Gonzalez testified Jan. 17 before a House subcommittee that the agency experienced an unprecedented spike in applicants last summer due to changes in fees, among other factors. In fiscal 2007, the agency received almost 1.4 million applications for naturalization, nearly twice as many the year before. The agency says applicants aren't singled out based on race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.

But for years, Muslims have been concerned that the checks are targeting people from Islamic countries or with Muslim-sounding names, says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C. "We'd like to see all the backlog cleared, and we'd like to find out why there's a backlog in the first place," he says. "The government hasn't been very forthcoming in all of this process."

Jeremy L. McKinney, a Greensboro attorney who's represented clients both Muslim and non-Muslim thinks the system isn't intentionally discriminatory, just woefully flawed. When "you're simply running a check -- based on a person's name, different spellings, possible spellings, date of birth -- the chance of getting a bad hit goes through the roof. Especially when, in light of 9/11, you're going to have many people out there named Muhammad," McKinney says.

Elannani's suit has languished for years, though he's been fingerprinted several times and hasn't been notified they lack information needed to process his application, according to court filings. In May, nearly 5 years after his application was filed, officials notified him they were waiting on completion of his background investigation. What might they find?

While in Illinois, where Elannani lived when he filed his citizenship application, he was imam of the Islamic Center of Bloomington-Normal. Following 9/11, he was often quoted in a local newspaper, The Pantagraph, as a prominent voice for the Islamic community. "Dear brothers and sisters, today Islam and Muslims are on trial. Violence is not one of the principals of our faith. Islam is against violence. We have to show our respect, we have to show our condolences to the victims of these atrocious attacks," Elannani said days after the attacks.

McKinney says he's had some success getting applications expedited. In some instances, citizenship was granted while the case was ongoing. Other cases are still pending. (The Denver Post in December 2006 reported that a Department of Homeland Security memo reveals that the FBI now considers a lawsuit pending in Federal Court as grounds for speeding up background checks.)

Meanwhile, McKinney says, some clients' careers are hampered as they wait. And if they were terrorists, they'd be waiting and living in the United States just the same.

"To go to a judge and waive the flag of national security is laughable," McKinney says. "If [a] person is a suspected terrorist, I want him investigated yesterday."

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