Stripping Citizenship

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Immigration law experts wonder whether two recent cases signal a growing focus on using loss of citizenship as a sanction against suspected criminals and terrorists.

In one case, Yaser Esam Hamdi surrendered his U.S. citizenship last year under an agreement that led to his release after being held for nearly three years in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Be­fore that, Hamdi, who was born in Baton Rouge, La., of Saudi parents, had held dual citizenship in the United States and Saudi Arabia.

In the other case, Lionel Jean-Baptiste, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Haiti, was convicted on federal drug-trafficking charges. On Jan. 4, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Atlanta said he must lose his citizenship for the offense. Jean-Baptiste v. United States, No. 02-22057-CV-AJ.

Andre Pierre, a North Miami, Fla., lawyer who represents Jean-Baptiste, has requested an en banc hearing. He is prepared to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“They’re giving carte blanche to come out and revoke citizenship of naturalized U.S. citizens if they believe they have a reason to do so,” says Pierre, a Haitian who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1992. “This is a case that will have national impact if the ruling stands.”

Under current law, the government may not revoke the citizenship of a person born here. But in naturalization cases, the law does not guarantee citizenship is forever.

Consequences for Bad Behavior

In his opinion for the panel deciding jean-baptiste, Judge Richard D. Cudahy stated that naturalized citizens are “safe at home plate”–to use an all-American baseball analogy–if they abide by the rules in obtaining their citizenship, among them displaying “good moral character” during the application pe­riod–generally five years.

Jean-Baptiste argued that he met this requirement because he never lied in his citizenship application–nor was he arrested, convicted or even notified of any investigations before becoming a citizen.

But the issue, Cudahy stated, is “whether a naturalized citizen who committed certain unlawful acts during the statutory period prior to taking the oath of allegiance but for which he was indicted, arrested and convicted after naturalization stands to lose his precious acquisition for lack of good character. Unfortunately, the answer is yes.”

Ira Kurzban, a prominent Miami immigration lawyer, says the 11th Circuit’s ruling in Jean-Baptiste should be cause for alarm among naturalized citizens.

“There is no statute of limitation for moral character,” Kurzban says. “They can go back anytime. To make it even worse, the issue is what constitutes the lack of good moral character for the purpose of naturalization. Basically, it’s whatever the government says it is.”

Others, however, predict Jean-Baptiste will have only a limited impact.

“I find it unlikely” that the case will “herald a wave of denaturalization actions,” says law professor David A. Martin of the University of Vir­gin­ia in Charlottesville, a former general counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “I think it will be confined to people who have a criminal conviction with­in a very short time after naturalization.”

Hamdi’s case presents different issues because he gave up his citizen ship as part of a negotiated agreement with the government.

“He probably could have fought it,” says public defender Frank Dunham of Alexandria, Va., who represented Hamdi. But after almost three years’ confinement, “He didn’t care what was in it.”

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