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American citizenship can be lost in two ways: denaturalization and expatriation. Denaturalization is the official cancellation, for cause, of a certificate of naturalization. It can be employed only against a person who has secured his citizenship by naturalization. Once denaturalized, a person is again an alien in the eyes of the law; unlike the expatriate, he is considered never to have been a citizen. As an alien, the denaturalized former citizen is vulnerable to deportation and, in the case of a denaturalized criminal, to extradition.

Denaturalization, like naturalization, is governed by statute—currently, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Congress derives the implied power to denaturalize from its express power set forth in Article I, section 8, to "establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization." Congress has provided for denaturalization when a person's citizenship has been "illegally procured" or "procured by concealment of a material fact or by willful misrepresentation."

Denaturalization has been employed against naturalized citizens because of their membership in communist, Nazi, or other organizations espousing doctrines deemed antithetical to American allegiance. In such cases, the ground for denaturalization is that citizenship has been illegally procured because the applicant failed to comply with the statutory condition that he be attached to the principles of the American Constitution for the five years immediately preceding his naturalization. Also under the act, membership in such an organization within five years of naturalization is "prima facie evidence" of a lack of attachment prior to naturalization.

Denaturalization has also been employed against criminals and racketeers (thereby rendering them subject to deportation), on the ground that they obtained their American citizenship by lying about their criminal past. In such a case, even though the courts have held that denaturalization proceedings are suits in equity and are governed by the federal rules of civil procedure, the government must prove that the naturalized citizen lied about his criminal past, and thus, in effect, must prove the crime. The Supreme Court has stated, however, that the government need not meet the usual standard of proof for criminal guilt, as the defendant is subject not to penal sanctions but only to denaturalization.

Recently denaturalization suits have also been brought against Nazi war criminals. The central issue in these cases has been falsification or concealment of objective facts about the person's past. Although the courts have been unanimous that the alleged misrepresentations must be material, they have disagreed over whether a misrepresentation is sufficiently material if the truth, which by itself would not have been sufficient to bar the granting of citizenship, would nevertheless have provided leads for uncovering facts of the person's past that would have precluded his naturalization.

Litigants sometimes challenge the constitutionality of denaturalization, arguing either that it reduces naturalized citizens to second class status (in that they can be stripped of citizenship on grounds and by procedures that cannot be applied to native-born citizens), or that Congress's power to naturalize does not carry with it the implied power to denaturalize. To date such arguments have proven unsuccessful.

Ralph A. Rossum


Gordon, Charles and Rosenfield, Harry N. 1984 Immigration Law and Procedure, Vol. 3, chap. 20. New York: Matthew Bender.

Roche, John P. 1952 Statutory Denaturalization. University of Pittsburgh Law Review 13:276–327.