LOS ANGELES// Civil liberties advocates said yesterday they have uncovered a government programme to screen immigrants for national security concerns that has blacklisted some Muslims and put their US citizenship applications on hold for years.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) branch in southern California said that federal immigration officers are instructed to find ways to deny applications that have been deemed a national security concern. For example, they will flag discrepancies in a petition or claim they failed to receive sufficient information from the immigrant.
The criteria used by US Citizenship and Immigration Services to blacklist immigrants are overly broad and include travelling through regions where there is terrorist activity, the ACLU said.
The civil liberties watchdog learnt about the programme through records requests after detecting a pattern in cases of Muslim immigrants whose applications to become American citizens had languished.
"It is essentially creating this secret criteria for obtaining naturalisation and immigration benefits that has never been disclosed to the public and Congress hasn't approved," said Jennie Pasquarella, an ACLU staff lawyer and author of the report.
"I feel like ultimately this is just about politics. They don't want to be seen as having granted citizenship to somebody who's going to be the next Boston bomber," she said.
It was not clear how many immigrants have been reviewed under the programme, which began in 2008 and is formally known as the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Programme.
Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the agency routinely checks the background of immigrants applying for benefits and puts the country's safety, and the integrity of the immigration system, first.
"We are vigilant in executing these responsibilities and will not sacrifice national security or public safety in the interest of expediting the review of benefit applications," Mr Bentley said.
Under the programme, immigration officers determine whether a case poses a national security concern and confer with the appropriate law enforcement agency that has information about the immigrant.
Officers then conduct additional research and put many cases on hold for long periods. Most applications are eventually denied, as the programme states that officers are not allowed to approve such cases without additional review, the ACLU said.
An Iranian maths professor, Mahdi Asgari, started receiving visits from FBI agents after he applied for citizenship three years ago, the ACLU said. At one point, agents asked him about his relationship with a fellow Iranian graduate student with whom he now has little contact.
Mr Asgari is still waiting for a decision on his naturalisation application, the ACLU said.