Civil Rights Groups File FOIA to Uncover Racial and Religious Profiling

The ACLU of Southern California sued the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service today for denying a 50-year-old Egyptian Muslim man's naturalization application based on misleading FBI files and questionable tactics. This disturbing denial is part of what the ACLU/SC, the Council on American Islamic Relations and the National Immigration Law Center believe is a broader pattern of racial and religious profiling in the naturalization process aimed at blocking citizenship for individuals of Muslim countries and coercing them to become FBI informants.

In response, the civil rights groups separately filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request today demanding the Department of Homeland Security provide a full record of all internal policies and practices relating to the treatment of naturalization applicants from Muslim countries.

"Tarek Hamdi is like dozens of other upstanding individuals from Muslim countries who meet all the requirements for citizenship but are turned away because of a constellation of discriminatory practices," said Jennie Pasquarella, an ACLU/SC staff attorney, who is representing Mr. Hamdi. "We have seen case after case of the government using bogus denials, browbeating Muslim applicants into becoming snitches, and erecting needless hurdles for otherwise routine applications. National origin and religion must not be a factor in determining who can become a citizen of this country, yet it appears that too often it is."

A father of four and practicing Muslim, Tarek Hamdi has lived in the United States for more than thirty years and became a lawful permanent resident more than two decades ago. Mr. Hamdi is an ideal candidate for naturalization, yet it took nine years before the USCIS made a decision on the merits of his application. USCIS declined Mr. Hamdi's application alleging he failed to claim he was "associated" with the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), a group designated as a financier of terrorism by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2002. Yet, Mr. Hamdi has never been a BIF member and does not consider himself to be "associated" with BIF.

"I always played by the rules. I paid taxes, contributed to society and raised a beautiful family. I have been treated differently because I am a Muslim man," Mr. Hamdi said. "This has been incredibly frustrating and truly demoralizing. No person of faith, no honest man should have to face the discrimination I have, especially when striving to take an oath of allegiance to the United States."

Mr. Hamdi did donate money to BIF in 2000 after learning about the organization's humanitarian relief efforts, a legal act that does not disqualify him for citizenship. Upon questioning, he disclosed all this information to immigration officials. He explained that he donated to the charity, as he does to many Islamic and non-Islamic groups, as part of the Muslim charitable giving practice, zakat.

But in Mr. Hamdi's case, USCIS used secret evidence, apparently obtained by an FBI file, to create a link between him and a designated terrorism financer when there was none. That practice of using FBI files to deny naturalization is well documented in a 2009 ACLU report, "Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity." Though the specifics of Mr. Hamdi's case may be unique, his story of applying for naturalization is the story of many other applicants of a similar religious and national origin background: needless delays, heightened scrutiny and ultimately erroneous denials.

"Post 9-11 government policies have persistently made it more difficult for Muslims to naturalize," said Ameena Qazi, staff attorney and deputy executive director of CAIR of the Greater Los Angeles Area. "More troublesome is a wider pattern of singling out those from Muslim countries throughout the processing of their naturalization applications. They are asked inappropriate questions about their faith and subjected to unnecessary scrutiny."

The civil rights groups who are filing the FOIA have received numerous reports of immigration officers making false denials and asking Muslim applicants during naturalization interviews detailed questions about their religious practices and the mosque they attend – questions irrelevant to their eligibility for citizenship.

"We are deeply concerned about USCIS practices that treat citizenship applicants from Muslim countries as presumed suspects," said Karen Tumlin, managing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center. "There cannot be one immigration process for those of Muslim and Arab descent and another one for everyone else."