Chicago Tribune: Citizenship truly sweet, despite long, bitter fight

Feature 244A UIC professor applied to become a citizen in 2002—then spent years battling the government

Mohammed Reza Ghaffarpour believed his path to citizenship would be smooth after he aced his 2003 English and U.S. history exam and received a letter saying he was being recommended for approval.

Instead, his case is a study in how concerns over terrorism are further weighing down a system already suffering from limited resources amid a surge in citizenship applications.

After a long legal battle, Ghaffarpour, 53, was sworn in as a U.S. citizen last Thursday, six years after he applied in 2002. But not before Immigration authorities sought to paint the Iranian-born chemical engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago as a potential threat to national security.

An audit released Monday by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that such worries drove up Immigration-related requests for FBI background checks to more than 4 million during the fiscal year that ended in October, up from 2.7 million in fiscal year 2001.

In Ghaffarpour’s case, long trips home to Iran—where he attended academic seminars and tended to his ailing parents before they both died in 2005—were cast in a sinister light. So were airplane layovers in Frankfurt, Germany, where Ghaffarpour says he never left the airport.

Before it was all done, the father of two was wrongly accused of neglecting child support payments; he had in fact overpaid. And he was deemed someone of “poor moral character” because of a 1999 order of protection won by his ex-wife that, a federal judge ruled last month, did not fairly represent Ghaffarpour’s version of events in that marital dispute.

“You feel discriminated against,” said Ghaffarpour, 53. “When you are living for a long time in some place and you don’t have any problems . . . it’s tough to learn this.”

His case is among several thousand court challenges filed by immigrants frustrated over long delays in their citizenship applications, some stretching back eight years with few or no updates from Immigration authorities.

Federal officials have said many of those delays are due to a staff shortage amid a continuing spike in citizenship applications, a problem the Department of Homeland Security is addressing by hiring 1,800 new employees.

But others, like Ghaffarpour, simply fit the wrong profile in a process that is also sagging under concerns over terrorism.

With many applicants screened multiple times, there were some 327,000 FBI name-check requests still pending in March, according to the audit.

In 2003, Ghaffarpour began to suspect there was something wrong with his case after a Chinese student and an Indian colleague at UIC who had applied for citizenship months after he did became Americans.

“I began to wonder: What’s the difference between people?” Ghaffarpour said.

Repeated inquiries to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes applications, produced the same reply: A background check is pending.

In 2006, Ghaffarpour sued.

Ghaffarpour said he is not bitter. The experience has bolstered his faith in the American legal system, he said, recalling how friends tried to dissuade him from suing.

“They said: ‘If you go, you will never get any kind of resolution to this matter,’ ” Ghaffarpour recalled. “I said that, still, the system is working.”

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