Name Check

Immigrants in the dark


Since 2002 immigration officials have required that the FBI check all immigration applicants against its investigational files —everyone from immigrants whose countries of origin are designated sponsors of terrorism to Mexican immigrants who have served in the U.S. military. While other security checks take only minutes, these checks can take weeks or years, as the agency manually searches hundreds of FBI locations for a possible match. As applicants wait, it is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services policy to "not share information about the records match or the nature or status of any investigation."

In a 2006 report to Congress, immigration ombudsman Prakash Khatri found that these name checks were "the most pervasive problem" in addressing long-delayed green card and naturalization applications. Immigrants on hold, barred from accessing information about their own applications, are stuck in legal limbo. They may not be able to work, and if they leave the country they may not be able to re-enter. In his 2007 report, Khatri tells the story of a cancer patient who lost his job and his medical care while waiting for an FBI name check, which was finally completed after four years. Other immigrants waiting months or years for their name checks to come through include a former security officer at a U.S. embassy and a contract employee for the federal government, both of whom had high-level security clearances.

Khatri's 2007 report found that the backlog of applications on hold because of such checks had doubled during the previous two years, that tens of thousands of legal immigrants had been waiting years for approval, and that the security checks were of questionable security value. While Khatri recommends scrapping the program or narrowing its scope, the FBI says it is working on streamlining the current process with a computerized case management system. That system was supposed to be up and running years ago but has itself been delayed repeatedly.