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Long-held dream of citizenship comes true

In a snow-capped house brightly festooned for Christmas, Ahmed Weisi had but one wish: U.S. citizenship. Would this be his year?

Ahmed Weisi faced years of frustrating obstacles in his effort to win U.S. citizenship. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Ahmed Weisi faced years of frustrating obstacles in his effort to win U.S. citizenship. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

In a snow-capped house brightly festooned for Christmas, Ahmed Weisi had but one wish: U.S. citizenship.

Would this be his year?

The 59-year-old Iraqi-born man has been a permanent legal resident of the United States since 1987. He is married to a New Jersey-born woman, Joan, and their son, Marc, is 21.

For 15 years, Weisi felt no need to upgrade his status from green-card holder to citizen. He was educated in Austria and held Austrian citizenship, which seemed good enough.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks stirred American patriotism that until then Weisi didn't know was in him, he said Monday over tea and Christmas cookies at his home in rural Hunterdon County, N.J.

"If I want to defend this country, be involved with this country," he recalled saying to himself, "I have to be a citizen."

In 2005, Weisi started the process to get U.S. citizenship. He had an application interview on Jan. 11, 2006, and passed the 10-question exam with flying colors - aceing the name of the chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr.

Then Weisi's name was forwarded to the FBI for a background check. Although by law the Customs and Immigration Service is supposed to respond within 120 days, Weisi's case lingered. As a person of Middle Eastern origin, he expected close scrutiny in a post-9/11 world, he said, but also worried that he might experience unfair discrimination.

Each time he checked on the status of his application at the Newark, N.J., Customs and Immigration office, he was told it was "pending" with no further details.

Weisi speaks seven languages, ran a New Jersey trucking firm, and holds a Department of Homeland Security-issued license to transport hazardous materials, including explosives and medical waste. Last year, with the trucking business in a slump, he offered his services to the U.S. military, and began going on six-month assignments for the Army and Navy in Iraq, where he translates Arabic as a Department of Defense civilian contractor. He has worked at Camp Bucca, the sprawling prison known in Army-speak as a "theater internment facility."

It's a dangerous job that has him wearing camouflage and body armor, traveling with the troops, hopping in and out of moving helicopters, looking warily for improvised explosive devices, and participating in the interrogations of enemy combatants.

Between deployments he comes home to his 200-year-old house in woodsy Whitehouse Station for rest and relaxation.

But this month, when Weisi returned home early for medical treatment because of a helicopter-related injury to a knee and a shoulder, he went to Customs and Immigration and was stunned to learn that his citizenship request had been denied on the ground that his six-months-and-a-day deployment from Nov. 15, 2007, to May 16, 2008, disqualified him because he spent too much time outside the United States. An application for citizenship requires continued residency.

Despite exemplary military service, a hazmat license, special training at Fort Meade, and a high-security clearance to be able to work for the Department of Defense, Weisi's U.S. citizenship, it seemed, was not to be.

"I was depressed. I felt like I was treated as less than human," he said.

Up to that point, Weisi had represented himself. With his wife's encouragement he got a lawyer, Audrey Allen of the Conshohocken firm Halberstadt Curley.

To Allen, who specializes in immigration matters, the case seemed lacking in basic fairness. And given its long duration, it seemed a little absurd.

"If this person is a real threat to security," she said, "do you want them hanging out here for six years while you're checking their background?"

Weisi's wife also sent letters about the case to elected officials, including U.S. senators and representatives from New Jersey, local officials, and even President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

Her husband came back from his preparatory training for Iraq carrying a record of his DNA and a form indicating where his remains were to be shipped in the event he was killed, she said. With each deployment he puts his life on the line for the United States and deserves better treatment, she added angrily.

On Tuesday, out of the blue, better treatment arrived.

Weisi got a call at home from the head of the Newark naturalization unit. He said the woman told him that it had come to their attention that his application had been "erroneously denied" and that the matter could be rectified that day.

He and Joan piled into their car and raced to Newark. Allen raced north from Conshohocken, too. Maybe the letters to elected officials had helped. Maybe hiring a lawyer, who brought media attention, did the trick. Maybe Customs and Immigration simply recognized the error and wanted to correct it. In any case, the spotlight was shining to their advantage.

At the Newark office they met with a district adjudications officer whom Allen described as kind and apologetic.

He handed Weisi a printed legal motion to reopen the case, meaning the immigration service, on its own and without Weisi's having to file a formal appeal, had decided to countermand the decision denying him citizenship.

Then, as in a dream, all the pieces began to fall into place.

Weisi was led to the swearing-in room, a cavernous space, where usually hundreds of immigrants take the oath of citizenship together, but on Tuesday it was just him in a mostly empty building that seemed to have been kept open only to accommodate him. In fact, when he arrived, he had to go through a back door.

A judge was brought in to preside. Weisi was handed a small copy of the Constitution and his naturalization certificate, signed by President Bush. He raised his right hand. He renounced allegiance to any other nation. He swore to bear arms for the United States in time of war, which seemed funny to him, because in Iraq he often is required to carry a gun.

"The ceremony was really moving," Allen said. "Usually these are done a few times a year with hundreds of people."

On Tuesday,. "it was just the three of us and the officer who was called in especially to swear in Ahmed. Joan snapped pictures," Allen said.

"It was miraculous how he was treated. And it goes to show how [Customs and Immigration] can move mountains when it decides to get something done on account of its years of errors on a case."

Efforts to reach agency officials were unsuccessful yesterday. Voice and e-mail messages left at the regional press office were not immediately returned.

By 8 a.m. yesterday, Weisi was at the passport office in Philadelphia. It took 21/2 hours for the precious blue booklet with the gold embossed lettering to be issued on an expedited basis, which is a good thing, he said, because he expects to be sent back to Iraq in about a week. As a citizen, he will earn higher pay.

"As sweet as it sounds," Weisi said, don't be tempted to think of his citizenship as a magical gift just in time for Christmas.

"This was my right," he said, getting angry all over again. "I have proof of all the monkey business they did."