Can Communist or Other Totalitarian Party Members Become Naturalized U.S. Citizens?

To obtain U.S. citizenship, applicants must prove adherence to the U.S. Constitution and commitment to orderly change.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

If you are a U.S. green card holder who has been a member of or advocate for the Communist Party, or of any other totalitarian party, you could have trouble obtaining U.S. citizenship. The application form that green card holders must fill out in order to apply for U.S. citizenship (Form N-400, Application for Naturalization), asks various questions about group and party memberships. Here, we'll focus on:

  • the meaning of the questions being asked
  • what bars to citizenship members of these parties face, and
  • relevant exceptions.

What You'll Be Asked on Form N-400 About Your Party Membership

Form N-400 asks many questions about whether you have been a member of any suspect organizations or associations, such as the Communist Party or any other totalitarian party. It also asks whether you have ever advocated (either directly or indirectly) the overthrow of any government by force or violence. Saying "yes" or otherwise indicating membership in or advocacy for the Communist Party or any totalitarian or similar party, can result in denial of one's application for U.S. citizenship.

This all relates to the portion of U.S. immigration law that requires citizenship applicants to show that they are attached to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and well-disposed to the nation's good order and happiness. (See I.N.A. § 316(a)). This includes a belief in representative democracy and the basic premise that political change should be brought about in an orderly fashion.

Given how many people come to the U.S. from regimes whose governments fit (or once fit) this description, however, it's worth taking a closer look at both the bar, the exceptions to it, and real-life interpretations of who is ineligible.

Legal Bar on Naturalization for Communist or Totalitarian Party Members

The Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) contains a prohibition on naturalization for anyone involved, within the last ten years, with a group that advocates or teaches opposition to all organized government; or involved with the Communist Party or any other totalitarian party of the U.S. or any foreign state; or who advocates world communism or totalitarian dictatorship even without formal group membership. (See I.N.A. § 313).

The law similarly blocks naturalization for anyone who within the last ten years, individually or as part of any organization, advocates or teaches the forceful or violent overthrow of the U.S. government, who assaults or murders any government officer, or who damages, injures, or destroys property, or commits sabotage.

The law doesn't use the word "anarchist," but lawyers consider this to be among the types of prohibited groups referred to in this section of the law.

The above is a boiled-down summary. If you think you fit into a loophole in what was just described, be sure to consult with an attorney or read the original law, which clearly tries not to leave anyone out.

Exceptions to This Naturalization Bar

Despite the ideological and political bars described above, you might be able to succeed with an application for U.S. citizenship if you fall into an exception. The exceptions within the law cover applicants who:

  • ceased their membership or involvement ten or more years before applying for U.S. citizenship
  • did not know or have a reason to believe at the time of becoming involved that the organization was a Communist-front organization (in which case, as a practical matter, applicants will likely need to show that their level of involvement was fairly minimal)
  • establish that their membership or affiliation is or was involuntary (not by their own choice, but was made mandatory)
  • show that the membership or affiliation ended before they turned 16 years of age
  • establish that such membership or affiliation was legally required
  • prove that their membership or affiliation was necessary to obtain employment, food rations, or other essentials of living, or
  • are otherwise eligible for naturalization and barred solely because of past membership or affiliation and are found by the U.S. government to have contributed to its national security or national intelligence mission.

In addition, court decisions have said that the person's association with the organization in question must be a "meaningful" one in order to bar naturalization. Simply paying dues, attending meetings or social events, especially while young, is less likely to be considered meaningful than, say, enthusiastic participation or taking on leadership roles.

For example, a federal district court found in a case called In re Pruna, 286 F. Supp. 861 (D.P.R. 1968), that because the applicant's membership in an organization supporting Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution in 1958 resulted from his belief that its objective was to restore representative democracy rather than communism, his participation did not amount to a "meaningful association" and he was eligible for U.S. citizenship.

Although some of the above exceptions could be easy to prove that one fits into, others will require more research and persuasion. In either case, it's best to get a lawyer's help with showing that you fall into an exception.

How Past Applicants Were Treated When Trying to Proving They Fit an Exception

U.S. court decisions contain important examples of naturalization applicants who successfully proved that they fall into an exception to the bar on naturalization for Communist or totalitarian party members.

For example, in a case called Grzymala-Siedlecki v. United States, 285 F.2d 836 (5th Cir. 1961), the applicant's enrollment in the Polish Naval Academy, which automatically conferred Communist Party membership on him, was found to not disqualify him from naturalizing, because it was necessary to his earning a living in Poland.

In another case, called Petition of Klajic (C.D. Cal., 1966), the court found that the applicant's membership in the Narodna Omladina Jugoslavije ("People's Youth of Yugoslavia") did not bar him from naturalization because the organization primarily fostered social and athletic events for young people and might not have even been truly affiliated with the Communist Party. Also, the court found that his membership was involuntary and was solely for the purposes of obtaining employment and other essentials of living, including a basic education so as to make him employable.

Getting Legal Help

Of course, there are courts that came to the opposite conclusion in similar situations. Again, your best bet is to get help from an experienced U.S. immigration attorney.

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