Appellate Practice

2nd Circuit: Man held for 4 years is a US citizen; ruling on immigration law could also help others

After being held for more than four years as he awaited deportation, a New York auto mechanic has been determined by a federal appeals court to have been a U.S. citizen since 1994.

In a Monday opinion (PDF) that could also help others in a similar situation, the New York City-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the immigration law in effect when Gerald Nwozuzu was brought to this country made him a U.S. citizen when his parents became U.S. citizens, the New York Daily News reports.

Nwozuzu, who is now 36, didn’t have to have a green card at the time his parents became citizens, a three-judge panel in the Manhattan case said. That’s because the immigration law then in effect said children became citizens as well if they either had a green card or began “to reside permanently in the United States while under the age of eighteen years.”

Nwozuzu was brought to the U.S. by his parents, who were international students, when he was 3 years old. However, the Board of Immigration Appeals and a federal district court judge interpreted the law to mean that a green card was required in order to “reside permanently.”

His citizenship became an issue after he took a plea in a gun-possession case in 2002. Although he got probation rather than any jail time, the criminal conviction made him a target for deportation by the feds.

Represented in the immigration case by lawyers Joshua Bardavid and Theodore Cox, the Nigerian immigrant was stunned at the importance of the word “or” in interpreting statutory law.

“An opportunity like this, where the moon and stars have to be lined up, it’s crazy,” he told the newspaper. “I just was like, it’s not only for me. A lot of people have been in this same situation. I fell into a loophole that I couldn’t have imagined. One little word could change up the whole sentence.”

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