Almost Lost in Translation – How a U.S. Army translator nearly lost his chance at American citizenship while on duty in the Middle East

Ahmed Weisi, born in Iraq and an Austrian citizen, has been a U.S. legal permanent resident (green card holder) since 1987. He has been married to Joan Pierson Weisi, a U.S. citizen, for 25 years. Joan was born and raised in New Jersey. The couple has a 21-year-old son, Marc, a junior and member of the Division III national champion men’s soccer team at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken.

Weisi applied for citizenship in May 2005 and passed the requisite tests at his naturalization interview in January 2006. At his interview, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) informed Weisi his application could not be adjudicated due to “security clearance.” USCIS should have approved his citizenship within 120 days; however, he was told for the next three years his application was still pending due to continuing background security checks. Ironically, Weisi, who runs a New Jersey trucking firm, had been cleared through several levels of security in order to receive a license to transport hazardous materials, including explosives and medical waste, issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

Weisi, who speaks Kurdish, Arabic, Farsi, Turkmen, German and English, offered his services as a linguist for the U.S. Army as a Department of Defense civilian contractor. He was trained at Fort Benning, Ga., and deployed to Iraq in March 2007. Weisi is deployed on missions lasting approximately six months and then returns to the United States for a couple of weeks leave. Although most details of Weisi’s deployment may not be released due to extremely sensitive nature of protected intelligence, he severs as an interpreter for interrogators at detention camps. He travels with the troops, wearing camouflage and body armor, hopping in and out of moving helicopters. The U.S. Army has given Weisi several awards for his outstanding service on various missions due to his work. Moreover, he is given the honor of training other linguists.

Weisi returned early to the United States for his Christmas leave this past December due to a helicopter-related knee injury. Weisi went to the USCIS local office in Newark to check on the progress of his case. He was then finally handed a denial letter, indicating his case was denied due to his absence of more than six months outside the United States, allegedly breaking the continuity of his residence. To add insult to injury, his absence, as noted in the denial, was six months and one day. Since receiving his green card 22 years ago, Weisi had not traveled outside of the United States even once until his deployment with the U.S. Army. Frustrated by this irrational response from the government, he retained my services, in the hopes of resolving the long-pending case.

The life he has built over the past decades is entirely in the United States. To allege that Weisi had abandoned his residency was not only wrong, but a disservice to our country. Weisi has indispensible skills needed for our military intelligence. Instead of accommodating an individual who leaves his family for months at a time and risks his own life for service to the United States, the Weisis were forced to spend precious hours of his leaves attempting to have USCIS properly adjudicate his case.

In order to meet the requirements for naturalization, and individual must have resided continuously in the United States from the date of the application filing until the time of admission for citizenship. INA (§)316(a)(2); 8 C.F.R. (§)316.2(a)(6). Absence for more than six months but less than one year raises a rebuttable presumption against compliance with the continuous residency requirements. INA (§)316(b); 8 C.F.R. (§)316.5(c)(1)(ii). In contrast, an applicant must not be absent from the United States for a continuous period of more than one year. 8 C.F.R. (§)316.5(c)(1)(ii).

An absence for over six months simply creates a rebuttable presumption that the individual has abandoned residency and is not normally grounds for denial, while an absence of over one year causes USCIS to look at an individual’s ties to the United States. Moreover, the regulations clearly state an individual employed by or under contract with the U.S. government or a contractor of the U.S. government is not deemed to break the continuity.

On Dec. 23, 2008, Weisi received a call at his home from the head of the Newark Naturalization Unit informing that the USCIS had reopened the case that had been “erroneously denied” and he could be sworn in that day. To say the least, it is rare for USCIS to reopen and approve a case prior to an appeal being filed. The Weisis raced from Hunterdon County and I rushed from Conshohocken to USCIS’s Newark office, an empty building due to the next day’s holiday. The district adjudications officer was kind and apologetic to Weisi as he went through the citizenship application just as had been done nearly three years past at Weisi’s initial interview.

We were then led to a cavernous room, typically reserved for ceremonies where hundreds of immigrants take the citizenship oath together. In front of an American flag and a Christmas tree, Weisi pledged his allegiance to the United States, renouncing all other nations, and swore to bear arms for the United States in war times, which he found ironic as he carries a gun when deployed in Iraq.

The following day, Weisi drove to Philadelphia, waiting 2 ½ hours to be issued a U.S. passport on an expedited basis as he was due to deploy back to Iraq and day. As a citizen, he will earn higher pay and be permitted to progress to higher levels within the U.S. Army.

Weisi, who leaves his own family and risks his life for the security of our country, has finally received his U.S. citizenship after three years of waiting. It is a travesty of justice that Weisi’s heroics in serving our country have been recognized and awarded several times by the U.S. Army, while USCIS denied his application for naturalization and subjected Weisi to even further delay. Moreover, it further demonstrates USCIS has the discretion to move mountains when it so chooses.

Audrey L. Allen (, of counsel to Halberstadt Curley, LLC, focuses exclusively on immigration and nationality law.

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