Oops... I Did What?! The Serious Consequences of False Claims to U.S. Citizenship

I sometimes like to start off my blog posts with musical references. For whatever reason, Britney Spears’s 2000 hit single “Oops!... I Did It Again” popped into my mind when I decided to write this week’s blog post on the subject of false claims to United States citizenship. The title of the single from the once youthful icon of bubblegum pop acknowledges a youthful indiscretion but blithely shrugs off its consequences for the victim. However, when it comes to applying for immigration benefits, one should not so easily dismiss the legal significance of making a false claim to U.S. citizenship, for this type of misrepresentation can land a non-citizen applicant in especially hot water.

The Immigration and Nationality Act sets forth numerous grounds of inadmissibility to lawful permanent residence. One of those involves misrepresentation. Section 212(a)(6)(C) describes two types of misrepresentation that can doom one’s hopes of obtaining a green card. The first type makes inadmissible someone who “by fraud or willfully misrepresenting a material fact, seeks to procure (or has sought to procure or has procured) a visa, other documentation, or admission into the United States or other benefit . . . .” With one exception, the second type penalizes someone “who falsely represents, or has falsely represented, himself or herself to be a citizen of the United States for any purpose or benefit under this Act . . . or any other Federal or State law.” The former ground of inadmissibility can be waived by the Attorney General on a showing that the non-citizen’s refusal of admission to lawful permanent residence would work an extreme hardship to his or her United States citizen or lawful permanent resident spouse, son or daughter (for VAWA self-petitioners, the extreme hardship can be to “the alien or the alien’s United States citizen, lawful permanent resident, or qualified parent or child.”) The latter ground of inadmissibility poses a permanent bar to admission for which no waiver is available. It is, as the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently characterized it in Munoz-Avila v. Holder, the “immigrant version of the death penalty.”

So how do false claims to United States citizenship sometimes come up? Unfortunately, the issue is often flagged after someone who, not realizing the significance of the misrepresentation or discounting the possibility of its detection by DHS, has already applied to become a lawful permanent resident or United States citizen. In those cases, the consequences can be quite severe. Persons can be prosecuted criminally and placed in removal proceedings. There is some hope that Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) will bring relief in the form of a waiver of inadmissibility for false citizenship claims. But CIR is not here yet, and it is too early to tell what redress it will contain if it is passed.

In the meantime, persons who have ever previously falsely claimed to be a United States citizen or made any type of misrepresentation to DHS or in connection with applying for a visa, admission to the U.S., or other immigration benefit, should consult with a knowledgeable and experienced immigration attorney to determine the legal consequences of the misrepresentation before submitting an application for a visa, green card or citizenship.

And for fans of Britney Spears who have read this far with little interest in the subject of immigration law, I do recommend giving a listen to Richard Thompson’s cover of “Oops!... I Did It Again.” It’s actually quite good.

Timothy D. Widman is a San Jose Immigration Attorney and the owner of the Law Office of Timothy D. Widman in San Jose, California.