When U.S. Citizens Can Lose their U.S. Citizenship

Limited circumstances in which someone can lose, or give up, U.S. citizenship.

U.S. citizens (or nationals) can never be stripped of their U.S. citizenship (or nationality), with limited exceptions. And they can give it up voluntarily. This article will look at both possibilities.

Losing U.S. Citizenship Because It Was Wrongfully Gained

Naturalized citizens who acquired their citizenship illegally (they were not really eligible for naturalization) or by deliberate deceit (they lied or hid important information about themselves) can have their naturalization revoked.

For example, naturalized citizens who are later found to have been engaged (at any time before naturalization) inpersecution or genocide, or to have been involved (at any time before naturalization, or within five years after naturalization) with the Nazi party, the Communist party, or a terrorist organization, may be denaturalized. In such cases, denaturalization occurs by suit or criminal proceeding in federal court.

(Note that U.S. passports -- a form of documentary evidence of U.S. citizenship -- can be revoked for a variety of reasons, even when there is no loss of nationality involved.)

Loss of Nationality Must Be by Voluntary Act With Specific Intent

To lose U.S. nationality, a person must both (1) voluntarily perform any of seven “expatriating” acts defined by law, and (2) perform the act or acts with a conscious desire (or specific intent) to abandon (relinquish) his or her U.S. nationality.

The expatriating act must be voluntary and take any of seven forms

Committing any of the following acts will create a presumption that it was performed voluntarily with the idea of giving up U.S. citizenship, although the person may later be able to rebut (disprove) this presumption:

  • Becoming a naturalized citizen of another country after age 18.
  • Formally declaring allegiance to a foreign government after age 18.
  • Accepting a position in the government of another country after age 18, if one has citizenship in, or declared allegiance to, that country.
  • Joining the military force of another country either (1) in any capacity if that country is engaged in hostilities against the U.S., or (2) as an officer.
  • Formally renouncing U.S. nationality abroad before a U.S. diplomatic or consular officer.
  • Formally renouncing U.S. nationality in the U.S. when the U.S. is at war, if done in writing and with the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice.
  • Being convicted of treason or participating in any attempt to overthrow the U.S. government.

The first five acts become effective only after the person who commits them has left the United States. The procedures for the sixth act (renunciation in the U.S.) have not yet been defined.

The act must be accompanied by a specific intent to relinquish U.S. nationality.

For all the acts listed above, it is not enough to appear to commit the act – even voluntarily – to lose U.S. nationality; the person must also commit the act in order to relinquish the nationality.

In the first two cases (naturalization in, or declared allegiance to, another country) and, to some extent, in the third case (when one’s position in a foreign government does not involve policy-making), the U.S. government will presume that there is no intent to relinquish U.S. nationality. To relinquish nationality in such cases, the person will need to make a sworn statement of intent (an affidavit) to a U.S. diplomatic or consular officer.

Even in the fourth and seventh cases (joining a foreign military or being convicted of treason), the loss of nationality will not be automatic. Instead, it will depend on the U.S. Department of State’s finding based on evidence that a person intended to lose his or her nationality by committing the relevant act. Such a finding would later be open to contestation in court. (The State Department does not have a clear appeal process, but could certainly review or reconsider its decision if faced with new evidence or new legal interpretations.)

The fifth act (formal renunciation abroad before a U.S. diplomat or consular officer) provides the most straightforward and effective way of relinquishing U.S. nationality – because it allows for a quicker and more reliable determination of intent. Yet even this process does not guarantee success: Any evidence of lack of intent, or evidence of intent to retain any of the rights or privileges of citizenship, could be used by the State Department to reject the act of renunciation. Thus, for example, an expressed desire to continue living in the U.S. would be evidence of intent to retain one’s U.S. nationality, and the age, mental capabilities, demeanor or other special circumstances of a would-be renunciant could be used as evidence of lack of intent to relinquish the nationality.

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