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Court Strips Man of US Citizenship, Setting Legal Precedent

  • Jim Teeple

A U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Georgia recently upheld a lower court ruling that stripped a man of his U.S. citizenship because of crimes he committed while his paperwork was being processed. Experts say the case will make it easier for government agencies to pursue naturalized immigrants who have criminal histories.

Lionel Jean-Baptiste, a 57-year-old former restaurant owner from Haiti was a leading member of the Haitian community in Miami until he was arrested and convicted of cocaine smuggling in 1997.

Mr. Jean-Baptiste served seven years in prison for his crime, but when he was released from prison in 2002, prosecutors took him to court again, this time to strip him of his citizenship.

Mr. Jean-Baptiste they said did not fulfill the "good moral character" requirement for naturalization. Prosecutors said that Mr. Jean-Baptiste applied for citizenship while he was engaged in criminal activity, and while he was not convicted until 1997, after he became a citizen, they said he should be stripped of his citizenship.

Now, an appeals court has rejected Mr. Jean-Baptiste's appeal - not to lose his citizenship - and he could face deportation back to Haiti. His lawyer says he will ask the appeals court to reconsider its decision and will try and appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Immigration and Customs officials have had no comment on the case.

Some leading authorities on immigration law, such as Professor Stephen Legomsky of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, say government prosecutors were clearly using the Jean-Baptiste case as a test case to set a precedent for future denaturalization proceedings.

"Well before 9/11, starting back in the 1990s, the government was intensifying its efforts to deport non-U.S. criminal offenders," he said. "After 9/11 that drive picked up. Since then it has taken a great deal of time because these proceedings tend to linger a while. My view is that since it takes so much time and effort for the government to bring a denaturalization proceeding, and then, if successful, to bring a subsequent removal proceeding, I have to think that with all their other priorities the government would not have brought this case unless their goal was to test out the strategy for future prosecutions."

David Martin, a professor of law at the University of Virginia and a former general counsel at the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, says that the Jean-Baptiste case gives government prosecutors more ammunition in their prosecution of criminals, but he says de-naturalization cases are extremely difficult and complex to bring and will only affect a very small portion of the migrant population.

"In a way there is always a certain insecurity for naturalized citizens if the government later discovers that there was some kind of fraud or illegality in the naturalization process they can move to take away citizenship and there is no statute of limitations so there is that vulnerability," he said. "But, there are only a very tiny percentage of cases that result in any effort to de-naturalize. For the government, the burden of proof is very difficult by design. The Supreme Court has held that the constitution requires the government to carry a heavy burden of proof if they are going to take away citizenship."

Stephen Legomsky of Washington University says it is important to remember that Lionel Jean-Baptiste is losing his citizenship because he did not fulfill the requirement of being of "good moral character" as required by law. Mr. Legomsky says that in this case the courts are deferring to law enforcement agencies to define what that means.

"It is not unusual for a court to defer to an agency interpretation," he said. "What is unusual about this case is that it is citizenship that is at stake, and citizenship has such a special importance in our legal system and in our society. The court is essentially allowing a law enforcement agency to take away somebody's citizenship and that I think should be of concern."

Stephen Legomsky says while the government has won the Jean-Baptiste case, he says it is unlikely there will be a flood of denaturalization cases brought by government prosecutors. However, he says, there will be more such cases, because the naturalization process now takes much longer, meaning there will be more people committing crimes while they are awaiting naturalization.

Mr. Legomsky says naturalization is now taking longer because more people are applying to become citizens," he said. "He also says people are less hesitant to apply for naturalization because more countries are now allowing dual citizenship, meaning applicants can keep their citizenship in their country of origin. Additionally, he says the government has fewer resources to process the flood of applications, making the process even slower.