How Falsely Claiming to Be a U.S. Citizen Can Make You Deportable

You can lose your green card by claiming to be a U.S. citizen before it's true, such as by registering to vote in U.S. elections.

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

Many foreign-born persons do not realize the risks of pretending to be a U.S. citizen, for example in front of an employer or voting authority. We'll focus here on:

  • the consequences of various types of false claims to U.S. citizenship
  • exceptions to the rules against making false claims to U.S. citizenship, and
  • defenses if you are accused of falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen.

Overview of Consequences of False Claims to U.S. Citizenship

Someone who falsely claims to be a U.S. citizen in order to obtain a benefit under U.S. federal or state law can become removable (deportable) from the United States. A person may be placed into removal proceedings even if the false claim was made unintentionally or to certain private parties administering a government benefit.

It is very serious to be charged with making a false claim to citizenship. A person who is deported on this basis becomes permanently inadmissible, meaning unable to legally return to the United States. Furthermore, there is no waiver available for false claims to citizenship and there is limited relief from removal available to noncitizens who lie to obtain government benefits.

Keep reading for more information about how falsely claiming U.S. citizenship can get you into trouble with immigration authorities.

(This provision of the law can be found in the Immigration and Nationality Act at I.N.A. §237(a)(3)(D).)

Which False Claims to U.S. Citizenship Make You Deportable

If you make a false claim to U.S. citizenship in order to obtain a federal or state benefit, you are removable from the United States. The most common false claims to U.S. citizenship occur under the following circumstances:

  • registering to vote in a local, state, or federal election when prohibited from doing so
  • checking "U.S. citizen" on an I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification form
  • claiming to be a U.S. citizen on a student loan application
  • attempting to obtain a U.S. passport, and
  • stating that you are U.S. citizen in order to obtain any other benefit for which U.S. citizenship is required.

Dangers of Falsely Claim U.S. Citizenship by Registering to Vote in an Election

Noncitizens must be careful when applying for driver's licenses or taking care of other matters at their local state government office. Due to the Motor Vehicle Act of 1993 (also known as the "Motor Voter Act"), states are required to provide people with the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for or renew their driver's licenses. However, while a minority of states ask for proof of U.S. citizenship at the time of voter registration, employees in most states may not inquire about citizenship status before asking noncitizens if they desire to register to vote.

In some jurisdictions, you certify U.S. citizenship simply by signing the voter application. The claim to U.S. citizenship is in the "fine print" of the form. In others, it is necessary to check a box to indicate U.S. citizenship, but a government official (or any other person you authorize to complete the form on your behalf) may check off the box for you. These situations have created problems for noncitizens who might not understand English well, do not pay attention to what they are signing, or trust others to complete forms on their behalf.

Worse, some noncitizens are misinformed about their eligibility to vote. For example, a campaign worker might tell you that permanent residents (green card holders) may register to vote, even when they are not eligible, or a canvasser might knock on your door to ask you to register and give you incorrect information.

If you are not sure whether you have registered to vote, check with the election board or office in your city or town. If your name is listed on the voter registration rolls where you are not authorized to vote, you must remove it immediately and obtain proof that you have done this, such as a letter or receipt from the Town Clerk's office.

Consult an immigration attorney to help you before you submit an application for a green card, naturalization, or any other immigration benefit, because you might not be eligible if it is discovered you registered to vote when you were not authorized to do so. Fortunately, USCIS Policy is to show some lenience if you can show that you didn't sign any portion of the part that indicated you wanted to register to vote, or otherwise intentionally register.

Dangers of Checking the Wrong Box on an I-9 Form

A person can become deportable for making false claims to U.S. citizenship to employers. Any time a person is hired for employment within the U.S., an employer is supposed to ask the employee to complete an I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification Form and present evidence showing a legal right to work within the United States. The form contains boxes for the employee to check showing eligibility to work.

A noncitizen should never check off the box "U.S. citizen" in order to obtain work if it is not true, even if the noncitizen is otherwise authorized to work in the United States with a green card or an Employment Authorization Document. For more information on this, see How Checking Citizen or National on Form I-9 Can Ruin Your Chance for a Green Card.

Dangers of Claiming to Be a U.S. Citizen on a Student Loan Application

Federal loans, as well as some state and private loans, require U.S. citizenship as a condition of eligibility. It is important to check for this requirement before you file any type of financial aid application. One court decision concerning a false claim to U.S. citizenship made on student loan applications also accused the immigrant of fraud, since he had used a false name, date of birth, and Social Security Number.

Noncitizens should be aware that applying for student loans can not only lead to a removal hearing, but also trigger criminal charges for theft, fraud, and other crimes that have long-term immigration consequences.

Dangers of Claiming to Be a U.S. Citizen on a Passport Application or Other Government Forms

In order to get a U.S. passport, applicants must present evidence of U.S. citizenship. By lying on this application and presenting a false birth certificate or other evidence, a noncitizen risks not only being accused of making a false claim to U.S. citizenship, but also criminal charges. Similarly, you can be placed in removal proceedings for filing an application for a certificate of U.S. citizenship if not entitled to one.

Remember that immigration applicants are also "government forms." For example, if you file an application to adjust status to permanent resident, at your interview the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer may ask whether you have ever made a false claim to citizenship. (This occurs even though the paper application, Form I-485, does not ask this question.) If you will not be able to honestly say that you have never made such a false claim, consult an immigration attorney.

A question about past false claims to citizenship DOES appear on the application for naturalization (Form N-400). Even if you pretend to have never made a false citizenship claim and are granted U.S. citizenship, your status may later be revoked if it is discovered that you answered this—or, for that matter, any other question—untruthfully.

(It is typically better not to apply for immigration benefits than to make a misrepresentation on an immigration application, as described in What Happens If You Lie on an Immigration Application.)

You Can Be Deportable for Lying About U.S. Citizenship in Other Circumstances

In addition to the situations listed above, USCIS officers have uncovered false claims to citizenship in other circumstances, such as people stating that they were U.S. citizens on federally backed mortgage applications for the purpose of buying a home.

The bottom line is that, even if you apply for a nongovernment benefit, if it requires U.S. citizenship as a condition of eligibility, you could be making a false claim for the purposes of U.S. immigration law—or at the very least, raise enough questions in the minds of U.S. immigration authorities that they place you into removal proceedings.

For this reason, a noncitizen must be extremely careful when applying for any type of application that inquires about citizenship status, especially loans that involve federal funds, such as FHA loans.

Exceptions to a Finding of False Claims to U.S. Citizenship

The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 changed the rules on who may acquire or derive U.S. citizenship from their parents. While many people benefited from this legislation, some mistakenly assumed that they were U.S. citizens. To deal with this problem, Congress included an exception in the Act preventing deportation of children who make false claims to citizenship under the following circumstances:

  1. the child's parents were U.S. citizens by birth or naturalization
  2. the child made the false claim when under age 18
  3. the child was a U.S. permanent resident prior to age 16, and
  4. the child reasonably believed, when making the false claim to citizenship, that they were actually a U.S. citizen.

The laws regarding who may become U.S. citizens through their parents have changed frequently throughout the years.

Another exception to deportation for false claims exists if the claim was made before September 30, 1996, which is the effective date of the false claims ground of inadmissibility.

Finally, some people who overstayed their U.S. visa or never had any legal status in the U.S. have made false statements at U.S. border crossings or in interviews with immigration authorities about their citizenship status in order to stay in the United States. In this case, if the noncitizen immediately and voluntarily retracts the false claim before the lie is exposed or is about to be exposed (also known as "timely retraction,"), the person may be spared from removal proceedings based on the false claim to U.S. citizenship. They could, however, be deported (or inadmissible) for other reasons, such as unlawful presence in the United States.

Defending Yourself Against Removal Due to a False Claim of U.S. Citizenship

Other than claiming that an exception applies, the only recourse available to a person who has made a false claim to U.S. citizenship is to seek cancellation of removal in Immigration Court.

In order to qualify for this type of relief, however, a showing of good moral character is required for non-permanent residents (non-LPRs). The trouble is, an immigration judge could find that a non-LPR who made an intentional false claim to citizenship lacks good moral character. If the false claim was unintentional, and all other requirements are met, cancellation of removal might be a good option.

For More Information

To learn whether you are eligible for cancellation of removal or can take other steps to defend against a charge of falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen, see Nolo's section Immigration Court Defenses: Avoid Deportation. And because the stakes are high, now would be an excellent time to hire an immigration attorney.

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