A new lawsuit alleges that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is keeping a secret "blacklist" that is being used to stop certain Muslim permanent residents from becoming citizens.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing on behalf of four people who claim they have spent years waiting unsuccessfully to become naturalized citizens without any explanation from the government about why. The fifth plaintiff named in the case was granted legal refugee status but, according to the lawsuit, is now being rebuffed as he goes through the process to become a legal permanent resident.
The secretive government process that the ACLU claims is at the heart of these delays is called CARRP, the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Process.
The organization is suing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services along with 10 senior government officials who it believes are involved in the naturalization review process in hopes of having CARRP dismantled.
Chris Bentley, the spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said no government employee would be able to comment directly on the case because of the pending litigation. However, he described CARRP as "a process that’s in place to handle cases where there are instances of some type of national security concern attached to it."
The ACLU lawsuit calls it a "deeply-flawed" program that uses "expansive government watchlists, and other vague and overbroad criteria" to render applicants ineligible for naturalization.
"The CARRP definition casts a net so wide that it brands innocent, law-abiding residents, like Plaintiffs — none of whom pose a security threat — as 'national security concerns' on account of innocuous activity and associations, and characteristics such as national origin," the lawsuit states.
Adding to the issue is the fact that, except in rare cases where a court order compels it, the individuals who are deemed such a national security concern will never officially be notified that they are on the list.
The ACLU argued in the lawsuit that individuals are being put on terror watch lists “solely because their names appear in a law enforcement or intelligence file, even if they were never the subject of an investigation.”
It cited voluntary interviews with the FBI or attendance at a mosque that had been under FBI surveillance as examples of how an innocent person may end up on such a list.
Ahmad Muhanna, one of the plaintiffs in the case alongside his wife, said he doesn't need a letter from the government to know he has been effectively blacklisted. Ahmad, now 54, first arrived in the U.S. from the Palestinian territories in 1985 to study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He married his wife, Reem, now 46, in North Carolina in 1988 and they both went on to earn advanced degrees -- he has his doctorate in civil engineering and she has a master's degree in electrical engineering. The couple and their children have since moved to Richardson, Texas, where they both work at an electronic manufacturing company.
He and his wife routinely run into problems at the airport: Their boarding passes are regularly marked with the code 'SSSS' which means that they are on the Selectee List, an offset of the Terrorist Screening Database, and there have been instances where ticketing agents have refused to give Muhanna his boarding pass until they spoke to officials in Washington.
Muhanna is fairly certain he is on a watch list, though nobody has confirmed it to him officially.
"Has anybody seen God? No. But many people believe in God because we see his influence in everyday acts. You see the impact of God. You see his creations," Muhanna told ABC News. “Nobody’s shown me the list, but I've seen the impact of it.
“I follow the rules that everyone, that millions of people have obeyed, and why can’t I become a citizen? Why is it me?” Muhanna added.
Jeffrey Kahn, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who has written a book about the no-fly list, said that the secretive nature of terror watch listing leads to the government casting a wide net.
“When your favorite tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Kahn told ABC News, describing what he believes is the government’s quick rush to judgment.
Intelligence documents released on Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept in early August revealed that there were around 680,000 people on the Terrorist Screening Database and more than 40 percent of those individuals were marked as having "no recognized terrorist group affiliation."
Rather than specifically focusing on the five plaintiffs listed in the suit, the ACLU’s stated goal is to abolish CARRP on the grounds that it violates the Constitution and the Immigration and Naturalization Act.
“They're essentially creating criteria for who is eligible for becoming a citizen that is nowhere listed in the Constitution,” ACLU attorney Jennifer Pasquarella said. “It’s their own agenda, essentially.”
The suit was filed in federal district court in California on July 31 and the government has 60 days to respond.
Pasquarella told ABC News that she does not know what the government will do, but said that it likely wants to get the case kicked out of court, which may be done by granting relief for the individual plaintiffs and processing their applications. The citizenship status of the five plaintiffs is not formally listed as a goal of the suit because federal courts do not have that authority, but Pasquarella said it would be a “great” outcome.
Though Muhanna said the application process has been undeniably frustrating -- and expensive; the legal expenses for his and his wife’s immigration attorneys through the years have cost roughly $50,000 -- he remains determined to become a citizen. His five children were all born and raised in America and have beaten him to citizenship, as a result.
He hopes the case will “bring peace to many other people, not just us.”
“Is this really the country that I was promised when I came?" Muhanna asked. "You are free -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion. ... Is it the same country that I have in mind?
“Sometimes," he added, "I think there is a lot of politics in some of these issues but overall it is the same country. This process, I don’t think, is in line with the Constitution of this country.”