A U.S. federal judge on Monday declined to fast-track the case of a U.S.-born woman who moved to Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria in 2014 and now wants to return to her birth country.
Lawyers for Hoda Muthana's father, who is suing the U.S. government on behalf of his 24-year-old daughter and her toddler son, argued in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., that threats against the young woman's life after defecting from IS late last year, in addition to the conditions in the refugee camp where she is being held by Kurdish forces allied with the U.S., "are not safe."
"She's in immediate areas of conflict," attorney Charles Swift of the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America told the judge.
Moreover, Swift argued, the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria created a need to get Muthana out of the camp while soldiers could still reach her.
Lawyers for the federal government countered that Muthana, who has been interviewed by several international media outlets in the last month at the camp, showed "no indication she's facing any sort of imminent harm."
"She did this of her own free will. She's in the custody of foreign forces because of those decisions," one of the government's lead attorneys, Scott Stewart, argued to the judge.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton agreed with the government that the lawsuit will continue on a regular timeline, not expedited; Swift indicated the case would take months to conclude but likely would not stretch past August.
At the heart of the case are a litany of bureaucratic and diplomatic entanglements that raise questions about diplomatic immunities, the processes of revoking passports and stripping citizenship, and how the U.S. will handle the cases of returning extremists.
The government attempted to revoke her passport and declare that Muthana was granted citizenship and multiple U.S. passports in error after she left the country from Syria.
Muthana has indicated, through lawyers and media interviews, that she is willing to face the legal consequences if she is charged over her affiliation with the extremist group upon returning to the U.S.
Diplomatic immunity and birthright citizenship
Her father, Ahmed Ali Muthana, is suing, in part, for the government to recognize her citizenship and allow her to re-enter the U.S.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Hoda Muthana will not be allowed to return to the country, but they cannot unilaterally strip her of her citizenship.
Court documents filed in the case show a dispute between the government and the Muthana family over when Hoda's father — once a high-ranking official with the Yemeni delegation to the United Nations in New York — ceased being covered by diplomatic immunity.
That decision affects whether Hoda Muthana, who was born in New Jersey and raised in Alabama, should have qualified for birthright citizenship. Children born to diplomats in the U.S. do not benefit from automatic citizenship.
U.S. officials allege the U.S. mission to the U.N. was not notified of Ahmed Ali Muthana's departure from the Yemeni mission until after his daughter's birth, and that she was twice issued U.S. passports in error, since her family was still covered by diplomatic immunity when she was born in 1994.
The Muthana family provided a document from the same office of the U.S. mission to the U.N. that shows the bureau was notified that Ahmed Ali Muthana was no longer with the mission prior to Hoda Muthana's birth, which would make her eligible for birthright citizenship.
'Exploiting' a system
The case, however, could have repercussions beyond Hoda Muthana.
In an argument that seemed to pique the judge's interest, Swift claimed the discrepancy as described by the U.S. government, if left unaddressed, could lead to embassies in the U.S. "exploiting" a system in which they could hire, then fire, diplomats, postpone notifying the U.S. mission to the U.N., and order the terminated diplomats to spy or commit other crimes in the U.S. under the cover of immunity.
"That is really opening us up to danger," Swift told reporters gathered outside the courthouse after the hearing.
The next hearing date has not been set.