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Immigrants: Can the Government Revoke Your Citizenship?

Why is the U.S. government taking people’s citizenship?

Since January 2017, the Department of Homeland Security has investigated possible cases of immigration fraud that resulted in U.S. citizenships, sending 95 of these cases to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for prosecution and denaturalization. In June 2018, DHS doubled down on this commitment when they announced the opening of a new office in Los Angeles that will prosecute about 1,600 possible cases that fall in this category. For comparison, from the 1990s to now, the government only filed around 300 of these denaturalization cases.

Why is the government choosing to do this?

The Trump administration has expanded these investigations as part of its immigration enforcement measures against fraud, stating that it cannot allow purported “citizenship cheaters” to get a high-value benefit like citizenship status under false pretenses. By comparing old, paper-based fingerprint records to recent naturalization records, DHS identified around 2,500 cases to investigate for possible immigration fraud. DHS is also hiring lawyers and immigration officers to carry out these investigations in a new Los Angeles office, which will replace a temporary office that oversaw the initiative’s beginning stages.

What would cause someone to lose their citizenship?

A person can lose their citizenship if they make false statements about their past criminal and immigration history on their naturalization or any prior immigration application. Any false statements, such as falsifying or failing to report a criminal conviction or past immigration violation, or use of any different name in the past, that would make someone ineligible for the immigration status they held prior to naturalization, can be grounds for revoking their citizenship status in the future.

In June 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that for a falsification to justify denaturalization, it must have been material to the procurement of citizenship. If telling the truth would have prevented the individual from gaining citizenship originally, then the false statement is considered “material.” The court further ruled that immaterial falsifications told out of shame, error, or a desire for privacy are not sufficient to justify denaturalization.

How does the government find out about these false statements?

The U.S. government frequently detects these instances by comparing fingerprint, criminal, and immigration files. After a September 2016 DHS Inspector General report called for the digitization of older, paper-based fingerprint files, the agency began checking these files against current fingerprint records to track previously deported people who reentered the United States using a different identity. If fingerprints from an earlier deportation order matched with a recent naturalization record, the government might be able to prove that the individual received citizenship under false pretenses.

What is the process for taking away someone’s citizenship?

The process of revoking citizenship from a naturalized citizen is called “denaturalization” and can only be done via federal court. The government must petition the court to revoke the naturalization of a suspected offender and present evidence of the materiality of the false statement, and the federal judge must issue a ruling revoking citizenship. However, the government can choose between two types of denaturalization proceedings: criminal and civil. The government usually chooses criminal proceedings when the individual concealed major criminal activity to obtain their citizenship. Civil denaturalization is used when there seems to be no criminal intent or if the offenses are lower level, even though material. USCIS has noted that most of the new denaturalization cases would be filed as civil proceedings.

If the judge rules in favor of denaturalization, the individual returns to the immigration status they had before naturalizing, which is usually as a green card holder. While denaturalization does not automatically lead to deportation, the offense used to denaturalize someone is usually sufficient for the government to deport them at the conclusion of these legal proceedings, and they are remitted for proceedings for removal before an immigration judge.

Can a naturalized citizen who commits a crime in the United States lose their citizenship?

No. While lawful permanent residents, or green card holders, can be deported if they commit certain crimes while they have that status, once a green card holder is naturalized, they are treated like any other citizen. The government can strip native-born or naturalized citizens of their citizenship for a narrow set of reasons, including naturalization in another country with the intent of renouncing U.S. citizenship, serving in the armed forces of another country engaged in hostilities against the United States, or serving in a government of a foreign country after acquiring citizenship there. However, denaturalization occurs only for naturalized citizens if they committed a disqualifying offense before gaining citizenship and also falsified or failed to disclose it on their immigration application or naturalization petition. For example, the government could not denaturalize Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a naturalized citizen who committed the Boston Marathon bombings; however, it successfully pursued denaturalization against five men in Florida, Illinois, and Texas, who hid evidence of past sex crimes to gain citizenship.

Who has been the target of the government’s denaturalization efforts so far?

The Trump administration has so far taken denaturalization actions against criminal immigrants. In March 2017, the government filed a civil denaturalization claim against Iyman Faris, a terrorist convicted of plotting to attack the Brooklyn Bridge. The government alleged that Faris was radicalized and trained before his move to the United States, meaning he gave a false statement on his citizenship application regarding his intentions in moving to the United States. Faris is scheduled to be released from prison in 2020, but DOJ officials are hoping the denaturalization case will complete before then.

Congress has also introduced legislation that might expand the reasons by which an individual could be denaturalized. In February 2018, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) introduced a bill that would enable the government to denaturalize people who were members or supporters of gangs, a measure meant to combat the operations of the MS-13 gang. This provision also appeared in an immigration bill meant to fix DACA drafted by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), as well as another DACA bill written by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA). While the latter two bills failed to pass the House of Representatives, Rep. Zeldin’s bill is currently with the House Judiciary Committee. Advocates have opposed such provisions, arguing that revoking citizenship based on actions taken after naturalization would violate the Equal Protection Clause in the Constitution.

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