WASHINGTON—When Army Reserve Sgt. Kendell Frederick applied to become a U.S. citizen, he assumed that he would be approved quickly. After all, he was being deployed to Iraq, where he'd be expected to fight on behalf of the United States.
But the process dragged on for months because of paperwork mix-ups and misfiled fingerprints. In the meantime, Frederick, 21, was sent to Iraq.
Intent on straightening it out anyway, he went to a nearby base for a new set of fingerprints.
But Frederick never returned. On the way back from the base, he was killed in a roadside bombing.
Frederick's death in late 2005 highlights the plight of the more than 23,600 noncitizens serving in the U.S. military. Although they're expected to fight and possibly die for the United States, they can encounter a daunting bureaucracy when they attempt to naturalize.
"My son put his life on the line for this country," his mother, Michelle Murphy, said recently, "yet he had to beg for his citizenship."
Frederick, a native of Trinidad, faced such difficulties despite efforts to make it easier for military personnel to become citizens. In 2002, President Bush signed an executive order that made military personnel eligible to apply for citizenship immediately instead of having to wait three years. Since then, 20,000 military personnel have received U.S. citizenship.
Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes the applications, said he didn't believe immigration authorities should be blamed for the delays in Frederick's case.
"I think this is a unique case where errors were made and things simply didn't go right," he said. "I don't think it reflects a larger problem with bureaucracy."
But many military personnel continue to wait months—some even years—for their applications to be approved. Of the estimated 9,800 military applications pending currently, 751 have waited more than six months.
Army Staff Sgt. Kennedy Osara, a native of Kenya, applied in December 2002 to become a U.S. citizen. Since then, Osara said he has contacted immigration officials dozens of times to check on the status of his application.
Each time, officials repeated the same explanation for the wait: His criminal background check wasn't complete. The check, which is performed by the FBI, is mandatory for all citizenship applicants.
Immigration officials won't tell him anything else, he said. Meanwhile, he has served in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Kuwait.
His lawyer, David Piver of suburban Philadelphia, said the background check shouldn't be held up because his client has no criminal record. The military also already ran a similar records check at the time of Osara's recruitment.
"We're wondering if there's some kind of mix-up that we might be able to clear up," Piver said. "But we have no way of knowing."
Shawn Saucier, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman, said his agency didn't have any additional information about Osara's case because it was pending with the FBI. A FBI spokesman said he couldn't comment on specific cases.
For Osara's family, the wait is more than mere inconvenience. Osara's wife, Felicia, who is also from Kenya, is eligible to get permission to remain legally in the United States as soon as her husband receives his citizenship. Until then, she's stuck in legal limbo, waiting for him to return to their home in Delaware.
Osara's career also could suffer. Noncitizens can't re-enlist after eight years without becoming citizens. Osara, who has been recommended four times for special commendations, joined the Army in 1999, but would lose out on promotions because he can't receive the required security clearances as a noncitizen.
When he returns home, he could get preference for future government jobs as a veteran—but not without citizenship.
Osara, 37, said he feels "frustrated and helpless."
"It is necessary to have a detailed background check of applicants," he wrote in an e-mail response to a reporter's questions. "But it shouldn't take years."
Osara said he hopes he'll become a U.S. citizen before he returns home. If his fingerprint check clears, he thinks he can take a citizenship test and set up the required interview in time for an upcoming naturalization ceremony in Kuwait.
"I feel I have earned it," he said. "I want to be able to vote and access all the opportunities available to veterans."
Frederick wanted to become a U.S. citizen for similar reasons, his mother said.
He first tried to apply for citizenship in June 2005. But when he failed to check the correct box identifying himself as a military serviceman, his application was sent back.
By then, Frederick was stationed in Iraq as a mechanic. His mother checked the correct box on his behalf and sent it to the Vermont office that had returned it. But immigration officials returned his application again, instructing her to send it to Nebraska, where military applications should be processed.
Days after receiving it, immigration authorities flagged his application once more. This time, his fingerprints were the problem. Somehow, officials hadn't asked him for a required signature.
Murphy said she was told that her son would have to come in person to have the fingerprints redone. When she pointed out that he was overseas, they instructed her to send an official letter, attesting to his military service.
Then, she said, they told the family to wait.
On October 18, 2005, immigration authorities received official notification of Frederick's case. But they still didn't have a new set of fingerprints.
One day later, Frederick was killed.
After his death, Frederick's body was placed in a coffin draped in an American flag and sent back to the United States, where he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
When Homeland Security officials heard of his death, they rushed to process his application. Within weeks, he was granted citizenship.
Frederick is one of 85 military personnel who have been awarded citizenship after their deaths since 2002.
After Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., called attention to the case, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services streamlined the fingerprinting process for military personnel.
Immigration authorities no longer require soldiers to appear for fingerprint appointments. Officials now can accept fingerprints collected by the military at the time of enlistment.
But military personnel can still run into delays when the fingerprints are resubmitted for FBI background checks.
The FBI runs two types of checks on prospective citizens—a routine check of police and court records to look for criminal convictions and a broader "name check," which sifts through the agency's investigative files.
Most citizenship delays occur during the name checks, partly because of a heavy workload, officials said. The division responsible for the checks receives more than 27,000 requests from immigration authorities.
FBI officials said the checks were important in ensuring the right people became citizens. "It's conceivable that a subject involved in a terrorism investigation may not have a criminal history," said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson.
But Frederick's mother believes the U.S. government should forgo the second round of background checks because the military already does its own checks. That way, she said, all military personnel could be naturalized at the time of recruitment, or at the very least, before being sent to combat, she said.
"No one should be made to go through the hassle my son went through when they're in the middle of a war," Murphy said. "If they're good enough to be in the military, they should be good enough to be U.S. citizens."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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