To become a citizen

November 11, 2007

Two years after a soldier raised in Randallstown was killed in Iraq while on an errand to fulfill a bureaucratic requirement to become an American citizen, Maryland lawmakers are still trying to remove such obstacles for the thousands of other non-citizens in military service.

Army Reserve Spc. Kendell K. Frederick, a native of Trinidad, had already been given a lengthy run-around by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services when he was killed by a roadside bomb while making his second trip off the safety of his base to be fingerprinted because the bureau wouldn't accept the prints taken when he enlisted.

Through a combination of legislative and internal lobbying efforts, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings have won promises of administrative changes to ease the process that so frustrated Specialist Frederick and his family. But even an act of Congress cannot ensure that federal agencies function efficiently and compassionately, applying both flexibility and common sense to the regulatory process.

As we celebrate this Veterans Day in the fifth year of a bloody war, the tragedy of Specialist Frederick seems particularly poignant because it was caused less by senseless rules than by small thinking. And as of last week, it still wasn't clear how much progress has been made.

These non-citizen soldiers are legal immigrants whom Specialist Frederick's mother, Michelle Murphy, argued should be fast-tracked to citizenship in recognition of their service to the country - and we couldn't agree more. But instead, her son, who arrived in the United States at 15 and graduated from Randallstown High School, encountered a series of delays when he applied from Iraq for naturalization.

His application was returned four times: once because he failed to include a fee, which service members don't have to pay, twice for minor errors and last because the agency wouldn't accept fingerprints he had taken overseas. Finally, the bureau requested that he come into a Baltimore office and wouldn't accept his mother's explanation that he was on duty overseas.

This bureaucratic incompetence was aggravated by a Department of Homeland Security policy of refusing to accept fingerprints taken by the military using different technology. A spokeswoman for the citizenship bureau said last week that policy was changed after the Frederick case highlighted the issue. But House aides were told differently last month. So the House voted unanimously last week to require that Department of Defense prints be accepted.

Unfortunately, common sense can't be legislated. But a signal of intent can be. It's long past time the bureaucracy got the message.

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