BOISE, Idaho -- For six years, Ali Al-Lati has worked with the US military, teaching soldiers simple Iraqi words and commands, telling them about the cultural mores of his native land, and offering advice on how to deal with the extreme weather they'll face in Iraq.
He is a frequent visitor at the US Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., and has passed the background checks necessary to work for a Department of Defense contractor.
But to another branch of the government, Al-Lati is still an unknown. The Iraqi refugee is one of millions waiting for the FBI to clear his name -- a necessary step for citizenship.
Now, he is turning to the federal courts for help. Al-Lati is one of dozens of immigrants around the United States suing the government because the FBI has yet to complete a process called a name check.
"I came to this country because I want to live here. I work hard here. I love this country," said Al-Lati, who has learned English and passed the prerequisite citizenship test. He has even passed a background check by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Both the FBI and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services acknowledge that the delays are a problem. About 150,000 citizenship applications nationwide currently have a wait time longer than six months, said Maria Elena Garcia-Upson, a spokeswoman for the USCIS in Dallas.
"It's unacceptable, frankly, to have to wait this long. The agency understands that," said Upson, who said the agency is trying to find ways to expedite the process. "But you have to understand that USCIS receives millions of applications a year. One percent get hung up on additional name checks."
The FBI completes about 62,000 name checks every week, with close to 27,000 new requests coming from USCIS alone on a weekly basis, said Trent Pedersen, a spokesman with the bureau's Salt Lake City office.
The initial name checks are done electronically -- names are entered into a database to see if the FBI has gathered any information on them. But even information on similar names yield results, or "hits," and each hit has to be investigated so that information can be forwarded to USCIS. That can take months.
The wait may get worse before it gets better, said Audrey Singer, an immigration fellow with the Brookings Institution. As lawmakers grapple over the best ways to ensure a secure nation -- creating stricter laws on everything from green cards to passports to citizenship applications -- agencies such as the FBI and Department of Homeland Security are bound to get more bogged down, she said.
Al-Lati filed his lawsuit in May, after waiting nearly five years for his name check to be completed. Both Al-Lati and his attorney maintain that Al-Lati has a clean record. He keeps a handful of certificates of commendation from various military groups thanking him for his service as proof.
"We don't know why it's taking so long," Al-Lati said.