LOS ANGELES – Five people who have lived in the United States legally for decades filed a lawsuit today challenging a little-known government program used to deny thousands of law-abiding people citizenship, green cards, and visas on counterterrorism grounds – most of them from Muslim-majority countries. Immigrants whose applications are denied under the program do not find out why or have a meaningful opportunity to respond, the same as people who find themselves in the government’s wider watchlist system.
The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, the national ACLU, and the law firms of Jones Day and Stacy Tolchin. It charges that the program violates immigration law, and is unconstitutional because it was adopted without any congressional approval and violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.
“Our clients are long-time, law-abiding residents of the United States who, for years, the government has walled off from becoming citizens and lawful residents of this country without legal authority to do so,” said Jennie Pasquarella, a staff attorney with the ACLU SoCal. “Under this unfair and unconstitutional program, the government has blacklisted their applications without telling them why and barred them from upgrading their immigration status in violation of the immigration laws.”
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), part of the Department of Homeland Security, reviews and adjudicates immigration applications. In 2008, the agency unilaterally adopted the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CARRP), which prohibits USCIS field officers from routinely approving an application with a potential “national security concern.” They must instead deny the application or delay a final determination, often indefinitely. The plaintiffs’ immigration applications have been pending for several years, even though the process is supposed to take no more than six months.
CARRP’s definition of a “national security concern” is far more expansive than the ineligibility criteria specified by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act, which USCIS is required to follow. For example, CARRP automatically covers anyone whose name is on the government’s Terrorist Watch List, which has been reported to include close to a million names. The government’s guidelines for including people on the watchlist, which were leaked last week, show that the standards are vague and overbroad, particularly for non-citizens. The guidelines show that a person could be added to the list simply because he or she is “associated” with someone already on the watchlist, even if the government does not have reliable information about that person’s activities.
“CARRP’s definition of a ‘national security concern’ is far broader that any national security bar to immigration benefits set forth in the law,” said Stacy Tolchin, of the Los Angeles-based Tolchin Immigration law firm. “It is the imperative of Congress, not USCIS, to set the standards for who can become American citizens or legally immigrate to this country.”
Although the USCIS has not revealed the total number of people who have been subject to CARRP, the agency’s data reveals that between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, more than 19,000 people from 21 Muslim-majority countries or regions were subjected to the program.
“It’s deeply problematic that USCIS has a secret program identifying people as national security concerns based in part on their inclusion in the government’s flawed watchlist system,” said Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “The watchlist system is composed of overbroad, exception-ridden standards that inevitably result in many individuals, like our clients, being blacklisted even though they are wholly innocent of wrongdoing.”
The case, Muhanna, et al. v. USCIS, et al., was filed in the U.S. District Court in for the Central District of California.