Candidates take the oath of citizenship during a naturalization ceremony. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) has proposed sweeping reforms to federal Immigration and Nationality Law that would allow the government to revoke the citizenship of naturalized U.S. citizens within 10 years after naturalization for a broad range of alleged offenses.

The proposed legislation is “unprecedented in its approach,” said Patrick Young, special professor of immigration law at Hofstra University School of Law.

Zeldin said the bill is aimed at stopping the rise of gang violence by “cracking down on the aspects of our nation’s broken immigration system and other policies.” But the proposed measure, titled “Protecting Our Communities from Gang Violence Act of 2018” when initially introduced by Zeldin Feb. 8 goes far beyond gang membership or affiliation as legal grounds for “denaturalization.”

Citizenship could be revoked if, within 10 years after naturalization, a person is convicted of, has admitted committing the essential elements of, or has attempted to commit any one of a long list of offenses, ranging from human trafficking to burglary. See bill text.

Under current law, naturalization can be revoked only under very limited circumstances.

There are four grounds for revocation: if the person has procured naturalization illegally; or willfully concealed a material fact on his naturalization application or in the subsequent interview; or if the person becomes a member of, or affiliated with, the Communist party, other totalitarian party, or terrorist organization within five years of his or her naturalization; or if a person became a U.S. citizen through naturalization on the basis of honorable service in the U.S. armed forces and subsequently separates from the armed forces under other than honorable conditions before serving honorably for at least five years.

Revoking citizenship for an offense committed — or suspected — up to 10 years later flies in the face of the history and jurisprudence of naturalization law, Young said. “It’s not good law-making.”

The bill would create “an international law issue of tremendous proportions,” Young said, because the denaturalized person would likely be stateless — many countries don’t allow dual citizenship, so an immigrant who becomes a U.S. citizen loses his original citizenship. “It creates a man without a country situation” and potentially “a set of exiles,” he said.

“United States naturalization is a privilege, and those who have had this privilege bestowed upon them must respect and uphold the laws of our land,” Zeldin said in an op-ed piece circulated to the media yesterday, in which he announced his sponsorship of the bill and in a press release issued today.

The proposed legislation is intended to combat gang violence, inspired by recent slayings in Central Islip and Brentwood, Zeldin said.

Immigration advocates say citizens, whether naturalized or by birth, are subject to the criminal laws of the U.S. and the two types of citizens should not be treated differently.

“A citizen, naturalized or not, who breaks the law should have due process,” said SEPA Mujer executive director Martha Maffei. “We support our laws and if somebody commits a crime they should be punished, but citizenship should not be treated conditionally in this way.”

Young said he does not believe Zeldin’s bill has a chance of passing Congress — and if it did, it would not “pass constitutional muster” in the courts.

“It’s obviously designed entirely for political purposes,” Young said. “It’s pandering to people’s worst fears,” he said.

Zeldin’s office did not respond to questions about the specific language of the bill that would go beyond gang membership or affiliation and reach citizens convicted or accused of certain crimes within a decade of being granted citizenship.

The crimes include burglary, identity theft, interstate transport of stolen property, a felony drug offense and obstruction of justice, among others. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency would have discretion to determine if any group of five people is a “gang,” and whether any person is affiliated with or an associate of gang members. The determination would not be reviewable by a court, according to the proposed legislation.

Zeldin introduced H.R. 4996 on Feb. 8 and a second version of the bill, H.R. 5065 on Feb. 15. “The working version (HR 5065) has some minor technical clarifications,” Zeldin spokesperson Katie Vincentz said this morning.

In a second email this afternoon, Vincentz said, “H.R. 5065 is the legislation being advanced, which was also featured in our press release this morning; not H.R. 4996. H.R. 5065 does not go beyond crimes committed with an affiliation to gang membership or activity, which is the whole point of this proposal in the first place and is why a technical clarification was made on February 15.” 

Zeldin’s Feb. 15 bill (H.R. 5065) omitted the section relating to crimes, admissions and attempted crimes contained in the Feb. 8 bill (H.R. 4996). Both have been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, according to the Congress.gov website.  

Maria Piedrabuena contributed reporting.

Editor’s note: This story has been amended to reflect comments of the congressman’s communications director emailed after publication.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.