Justice Department to pursue “denaturalization” for immigration fraud
Recently, the Department of Justice issued a press release announcing the creation of a new section committed to prosecuting “Denaturalization cases.” This “Denaturalization Section” has a mandate to identify immigrants and other individuals in the U.S. who have obtained their citizenship illegally, such as through fraud, and strip them of their citizenship.
While the DOJ’s press release states that the government’s denaturalization cases will focus mainly on terrorists, sex offenders, war criminals, and fraudsters who are unlawfully attempting to become citizens, federal prosecutors have been casting a much wider net in recent years. Earlier this year, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the conviction of an immigrant convicted of obtaining his citizenship through making false statements on his naturalization forms.
Given the government’s aggressive approach in targeting immigrants, it is more important than ever for immigrants, even those that have become citizens, to understand some of the laws that allow the government to strip a person of their citizenship, and the potential defenses available.
How does the Government prosecute immigrants for obtaining their citizenships illegally?
Most prosecutions for unlawfully obtaining citizenship are brought under 18 U.S.C. § 1425. Under federal law, if an individual is convicted of unlawfully obtaining their citizenship, their citizenship is automatically revoked.
A person violates § 1425 when he or she: 1) knowingly 2) procures or attempt to procure, 3) contrary to law, 4) the naturalization of any person or any evidence of naturalization or of citizenship. In other words, the law applies when an immigrant commits an “illegal act” in order to obtain citizenship or proof of citizenship. However, that “illegal act” had to have played a role in helping the immigrant acquire citizenship.
One of the most common ways for the government to prosecute individuals under this law is to accuse them of making false statements on their naturalization forms, since immigrants seeking citizenship have to fill out various forms under oath and making a false statement under oath is a federal crime. The forms ask immigrants a variety of information, such as identifying prior convictions or arrests, family information, travel history, their memberships in certain groups and other private information.
If you are convicted of violating § 1425, you can be sentenced for up to 10 or 15 years in prison, depending on whether this was your first or second offense. If the government proves you illegally obtained your citizenship in order to engage in drug trafficking or to commit an act of terrorism, you can be sentenced for up to 20 or 25 years in prison, respectively.
Do I have any defenses if the Government targets me or my family?
There are several defenses available if you or a loved one are charged with unlawfully obtaining citizenship under § 1425, especially if you are charged based on allegedly making false statements on naturalization forms.
In prosecutions for illegally procuring naturalization through making false statements, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, not only that there were false statements on your naturalization forms, but that you knew those statements were false and that those false statements were “material,” meaning that the statements made it more likely that you would obtain citizenship.
Aside from proving that the alleged false statements are not false, one defense is that the person making the statements in question did not know they were false. This defense can be raised, for example, when a person claims on a naturalization form that they do not have a prior felony conviction, perhaps believing that their prior conviction was a misdemeanor or minor offense. The naturalization forms also ask applicants if they have used other names, whether they have taken trips outside the United States and to where, and whether the individual has associated with any terrorist groups or other suspect organizations.
Another defense is arguing that the false statements were not “material,” meaning that, even if the statements were false, they didn’t make a difference in whether the citizenship application would have been granted. For example, a defendant charged with making false statements on a citizenship petition could argue that he or she wasn’t making a false statement about anything that would disqualify them from becoming a citizen. An individual accused of lying about a prior conviction could argue that the conviction was not for the type of crime that would disqualify them from becoming a citizen.
Call our experienced federal attorneys if you or a loved one has been charged with unlawfully acquiring citizenship.
Our attorneys have over 25 years of experience defending individuals charged with federal crimes, including individuals charged with making false statements, fraudulently obtaining citizenship, and other immigration and naturalization crimes. We know the tactics prosecutors use, the best defenses available, and how to win.
Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of our firm’s “The Federal Docket” and a contributor to Mercer Law Review’s Annual Survey in the areas of federal law. Tom was named a “Top 40 Under 40” lawyer by The National Trial Lawyers, and is a recognized expert in federal sentencing law. He graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom’s reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.