The Hard Right in Congress Has a Dangerous Plan to Strip American 'Terrorists' of Their Citizenship

Three weeks after the new Republican-controlled Congress was sworn in, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Representative Steve King (R-IA) announced legislation that would strip Americans of their citizenship if they joined a designated foreign terrorist organization.


Cruz originally announced the bill last September.

“Americans who choose to go to Syria or Iraq to fight with vicious ISIS terrorists are party to a terrorist organization committing horrific acts of violence, including beheading innocent American journalists who they have captured,” the Texas senator said in a statement. “There can be no clearer renunciation of their citizenship in the United States, and we need to do everything we can to preempt any attempt on their part to re-enter our country and carry out further attacks on American civilians.”

The bill has the backing of Senator Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, but it likely has little shot of passing. Even if it does, the Supreme Court ruled in a 1967 case that Congress cannot forcibly remove an American's citizenship.

Potential presidential candidate Cruz’s backing of the bill could mean the idea is injected into the American political debate as the 2016 elections approach. More importantly, though, is what the bill signifies: stripping people of their citizenship for joining terrorist groups is an idea that is gaining popularity, despite its echoes of tactics used by totalitarian regimes. This is especially the case in Europe, and also in authoritarian states like Bahrain.

The legislation is meant to stem the tide of Western Muslims joining the Syrian civil war on behalf of groups like the Islamic State. But critics warn that the measures, which have been used most in the United Kingdom, target already marginalized Muslim communities, raise civil liberties concerns, could leave people stateless and open the door to punitive—and deadly—measures aimed at the people whose citizenship has been revoked.

In the U.S., citizenship is enshrined in the 14th Amendment, which made former slaves full members of the American polity. Any person born on U.S. soil becomes a citizen, according to that amendment. Subsequent laws made citizenship more contingent. In 1952, a U.S. law passed making it possible for people to lose U.S. citizenship if they take an oath or formally declare allegiance to a foreign power or take up arms against the U.S. But the courts have since ruled that a person has to intend to relinquish citizenship in order for them to have their citizenship removed--a high bar.

The age of the “war on terror” has seen the U.S. government take other punitive measures that, while falling short of full stripping of citizenship, take away liberties given by citizenship.

One case centered on Yaser Esam Hamidi, an American citizen who was picked up by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan after he was found fighting for the Taliban. Held for three years as an “enemy combatant” and detained without charge, his status finally changed after the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that detainees must have habeas corpus rights, or the right to challenge their detention in court. Hamidi eventually agreed to renounce his citizenship and was flown to Saudi Arabia.

In 2013, Yemeni-Americans began to complain of having their passports forcibly revoked after they traveled to Yemen, a country where the U.S. has been launching drone strikes for years to battle Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Dozens of Yemeni-Americans have had their passports removed after appointments at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen for things like obtaining visas for family members. Ramzi Kassem, a civil rights lawyer, has labeled this “proxy denaturalization.”

Cruz and King’s law would go beyond the removal of passports to the total revoking of U.S. citizenship. The law would also apply to those who provide “material support” for terrorist groups. The existing law on material support is one that has been harshly criticized by civil liberties advocates for what they say is its elasticity and criminalization of free speech.

In a September letter to senators urging them to oppose Cruz’s bill, the American Civil Liberties Union said the bill seeks to “dilute the rights and privileges of citizenship, one of the core principles of the Constitution.”

In addition, Cruz and King are intent on taking an extreme measure to combat what is a relatively small problem. U.S. officials have estimated that only a dozen Americans are fighting for extremist groups in Syria like the Islamic State.

Other liberal democracies are far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to revoking citizenship. Since 2002, the United Kingdom has taken away citizenship from at least 27 people on national security grounds, and dozens more on fraud charges, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Theresa May, the British Home Secretary, has the power to unilaterally strip citizenship, though people can appeal. The judicial process for an appeal has been blasted for barring the lawyers of those whose citizenship has been taken away of seeing the evidence used to take that action.

May's powers have been expanded recently. The previous law did not allow May to make people stateless, although that does appear to have happened in a few cases. Last year, the British Parliament gave May the explicit power to make people stateless. In two cases, former British nationals who had their citizenship revoked were killed in U.S. drone attacks. Another man was stripped of his citizenship and then taken to the U.S. where he was put in solitary confinement.

Now there is fear that France, in the wake of Al Qaeda’s deadly attack in Paris earlier this year, will ramp up its use of the power to revoke citizenship rights. In late January, France’s top court ruled that it was legal to strip a dual French-Moroccan of his French citizenship. The man, Ahmed Sahnouni, was convicted of being involved with a terrorist group.

Under French law, a dual national can have his citizenship taken away if convicted of terrorism before he became a citizen or if the person was involved in terrorism for up to 15 years after obtaining citizenship.

France’s far-right party, the National Front, wants to expand the use of this power. The party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, has called on France to tighten security after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Writing in the New York Times, Le Pen called on France to take emergency measures like “stripping jihadists of their French citizenship,” which she called “an absolute necessity.”

This is no idle threat. The National Front has capitalized on the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in France. Polls taken after Al Qaeda’s attack show that if elections were held today, Le Pen would be elected president.

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