ORLANDO, Fla. — As he waited for his citizenship ceremony to start Tuesday, Haeder Al Anbki held his breath, half-worried that someone would stop him and tell him to leave.
"I'm happy but at the same I'm concerned with, is someone going to pull me out and tell me, 'You can't participate again,'" said the former Iraqi translator for U.S. troops, minutes before he took his citizenship oath.
That's what happened last year to Al Anbki, who's also member of the Florida National Guard. But everything went smoothly at his ceremony Tuesday in Orlando, Florida. He recited the Pledge of Allegiance, said the oath of citizenship and sang along to Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."
He was a citizen at last.
"It's a dream becoming true," Al Anbki said after the ceremony, holding up an American flag. "After the long fight, after all these years, that flag is still standing. Going to keep it up."
Al Anbki, who had been shot and stabbed during his nine-year service as a translator for U.S. troops in Iraq, was at a June 2017 naturalization ceremony in Fort Benning, Georgia, for 20 immigrant recruits when he was stopped and told he wouldn't be participating. No explanation was given other than "there was a problem in the system," according to a lawsuit he filed last month in the District of Columbia.
The 36-year-old Al Anbki said in the lawsuit that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services should have completed his citizenship application but instead applied a different set of rules under a program known as the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program, which opponents say targets applicants from majority-Muslim countries.
The once-secret program is also being challenged in federal court in Seattle by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Their class-action lawsuit claims the government since 2008 has blacklisted thousands of applications for asylum, legal permanent residency or citizenship as national security concerns.
After stories about Al Anbki's situation were published by the Tampa Bay Times and The Associated Press, he was notified he would be able to participate in Tuesday's naturalization ceremony.
Afterward, he was planning to register to vote, celebrate with a nice dinner with his grade-school age sons and girlfriend and start writing a book about his life that he wants to call, "How to be an American."
"When you stand here, in this room, and say, 'I'm an American,' in front of other people, that's a great feeling," Al Anbki said. "You can't explain it. It's more than a victory. You feel like America hugged you and this land gave you real love."