Immigration

Denaturalization: Revoking Your U.S. Citizenship

By Ilona Bray, J.D., University of Washington Law School
U.S. citizenship is a much more secure status than you had as a green card holder; no longer are you at risk of losing status for things like staying outside the U.S. too long or failing to advise U.S. immigration authorities of a change of address. Still, it's not a completely secure status. It is possible to lose U.S. citizenship.

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If you're one of the thousands of foreign nationals who become naturalized U.S. citizens each year, you're to be congratulated. The naturalization process can take years, not to mention a lot of effort on your part. It results in a much more secure status than you had as a green card holder; no longer are you at risk of losing status for things like staying outside the U.S. too long or failing to advise U.S. immigration authorities of a change of address. Still, it's not a completely secure status. It is possible to lose naturalized U.S. citizenship.

Denaturalization is the process by which the U.S. government revokes or cancels someone's U.S. citizenship because the person has done something that undermines his or her very right to that status.

Reasons for Revocation

U.S. immigration law is specific about what can lead to revocation of citizenship, as well as what will occur during the revocation process. (You'll find the text of the law at Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) § 340(a).)

The two fundamental bases for revocation include that the person procured citizenship illegally (was not really eligible for naturalization in the first place) or procured it by deliberate deceit or misrepresentation (lied or concealed important and relevant information).

Of course, these can encompass many types of issues, from fraud in obtaining a visa to commission of crimes that weren't reported on the naturalization application to giving false testimony in seeking an immigration benefit.

One of the more common ways in which the revocation provisions are applied is against a naturalized citizen who is found to have participated in persecution or genocide, or to have been involved with the Nazi party, the Communist party, or a terrorist organization. That person may be subject to revocation of citizenship on the grounds that he or she concealed a lack of attachment to the U.S. Constitution.

In the latter case, it doesn't matter whether the U.S. government has evidence of the person's involvement with the Nazi party, the Communist party, or a terrorist organization before he or she became a citizen. If the government finds out that the person had such involvement within the five years after his or her naturalization was approved, it can presume that the involvement began prior to applying for naturalization, and thus that the person committed a misrepresentation in the course of applying.

Separate Revocation Ground in Cases of Dishonorable U.S. Military Discharge

It's possible to become a naturalized U.S. citizen based upon service in the U.S. armed forces. If, however, you are dishonorably discharged before having served five years honorably, your citizenship may be revoked. (See I.N.A. § 328(f).)

Separate Revocation Ground for Citizen Who Refuses to Testify Before Congress

Under a particularly obscure (seldom, if ever, used) portion of I.N.A. § 340(a)., your U.S. citizenship can be taken away if you are convicted for contempt for refusing to testify before a U.S. Congressional committee to investigate your participation in subversive activities. This will be viewed as equivalent to having procured citizenship by concealment of a material fact or by willful misrepresentation.

Your refusal to testify, however, must occur within ten years after USCIS granted your application for naturalization.

Procedures for Denaturalization

U.S. citizenship is ordinarily revoked through a judicial action, that is, a suit filed in a federal district court. The choice of exactly which court will most depend on where the naturalized citizen lives or resides.

You must, by law, be given 30 days' notice of the suit. You will be given or "served" a copy of the complaint that's been filed with the court, which will tell you why the denaturalization action was filed.

You will have 60 days in which to file an answer to the government's complaint. You will likely want to get an attorney's help at this point. Unfortunately, because this is technically a civil, not a criminal matter, no public defenders are available to help for free.

You can challenge the government's claims and raise any defenses against revocation. For example, you may claim that the revocation is based on wrong information, such as that the government is mistaken about a past criminal conviction that it claims you failed to report on your naturalization application (Form N-400).

The government must prove its case against you by evidence that is clear, unequivocal, convincing, and doesn't leave any doubt that your citizenship should be revoked. If the government is successful, you will have to surrender your naturalization certificate immediately.

Consequences of Denaturalization for Naturalized Citizen and Family

Obviously, having your U.S. citizenship revoked is a serious matter. In the best-case scenario, you will simply go back to being a lawful permanent resident. It can, however, lead to your being placed into immigration court proceedings and ultimately being removed or deported from the United States.

If you procured citizenship through fraud or misrepresentation, this act is also subject to criminal prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 1425, with severe penalties, including up to 25 years' imprisonment and monetary fines.

What's more, members of your family could lose their citizenship, if it was originally gained based upon your status as a U.S. citizen. For example, if you're a naturalized citizen and have a child born outside the U.S., your child may have derived U.S. citizenship automatically, based upon your status. But if your citizenship is revoked, your child's citizenship may be revoked as well.

Because of the serious consequences of denaturalization, you should get the advice of an experienced immigration lawyer if a denaturalization lawsuit is filed against you.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How will having an attorney benefit me in a denaturalization suit?
  • I've discovered that an organization I've been donating to is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Should I worry that my citizenship will be revoked?
  • I committed fraud in using a tourist visa to enter the U.S. to get married and apply for a green card, but was granted a waiver when I got my green card. Does this affect my right to U.S. citizenship?
  • If I'm a member of a Socialist party, does that make me a Communist and at risk of losing U.S. citizenship?
  • I've been served with a denaturalization lawsuit, but I can't find my certificate of naturalization. Can I get a copy of it?
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