February 27, 2009

All the headaches in George Bou Jaoudeh's life were supposed to go away this summer, when he envisioned taking the oath of citizenship. Finding a job and supporting his family in Bethlehem, he thought, would be so much easier.

But the path to becoming an American has been far bumpier than the Lebanese citizen and his family could ever imagine. It's been complicated by his work at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, where his time abroad has stopped the clock on the five years that green card holders must wait before becoming naturalized citizens.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, R-15th District, and Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for whom Bou Jaoudeh works, are arguing for an exemption to the rule in this case.

''I sacrificed for 17 years in Beirut and four years in Iraq. Is that enough to earn citizenship?'' said Bou Jaoudeh in an interview from Baghdad, where he works as the high-threat protection division investigator at the U.S. Embassy. ''I don't want to feel like a second-class citizen.''

Bou Jaoudeh, 45, received his green card in August 2004 after working in security at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon for 17 years. But when he and his family arrived in Bethlehem, he couldn't find work. He was turned away by the government and security firms, who he said told him to come back when he got his citizenship.

After eight months without work, he got a job in Baghdad with a private company, working as a key adviser at the U.S. Embassy. He didn't know he had to stay in the United States for at least a year after getting his green card, if he hoped to keep the clock ticking on the five-year wait toward citizenship.

Plus, he'd forgotten to apply to ''preserve'' his residence with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services while he was in Bethlehem. He sent the application 17 months into his stint in Iraq.

Baou Jaoudeh said he didn't learn the agency's response until this month, when its acting deputy director informed Dent of the bad news.

''Unfortunately Mr. Bou Jaoudeh does not qualify,'' Michael Aytes, acting deputy director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, wrote to Dent. Aytes said Bou Jaoudeh's application was rejected because he hadn't stayed in the United States for at least a year after getting his green card.

A spokeswoman for the agency said she couldn't discuss the case.

The news, Bou Jaoudeh said, was devastating. His contract in Iraq ends in June, and he dreads the prospect of returning to his wife and three sons without the possibility of getting a job in security, where he has spent his entire career.

Under immigration rules, Bou Jaoudeh must wait at least four years after returning to the country before he can apply for citizenship.

''The only job I know is protection and counter-terrorism,'' he said. ''It is too late for me to start again.''

Copyright © 2009, The Morning Call