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Court Helps Define False Claim of Citizenship

By Charles Wheeler

If you are an undocumented alien who is arrested by the police and during booking you lie and state you were born in the United States, is that a false claim of citizenship for immigration purposes?  The Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that it was not and overturned the BIA and immigration judge, who held that it was.

The facts in the case were muddled and contested as to whether the alien, Jose Castro, even claimed to have been born in Puerto Rico.  His testimony was that he responded truthfully and stated he was born in Costa Rica, and that the officer either misheard him or was confused, since his colleague at the time of arrest was born in Puerto Rico.  Nevertheless, the immigration judge found that he made a false claim of citizenship to the arresting officer, and neither the BIA not the appellate court overturned that finding.  Instead, the appellate court analyzed the statutory section, INA § 212(a)(6)(C)(ii), and applied it to the findings of fact to determine whether the alien had made the false claim “for any purpose or benefit under this Act…or any other Federal or State law.”  The immigration judge and a majority on the BIA panel held that Mr. Castro, who had no legal status at the time, was seeking a benefit under federal law by claiming to be a citizen, namely, to evade being turned over to DHS for possible deportation.  The immigration judge also noted that Mr. Castro was married to a woman who was applying for naturalization and that he was contemplating filing for adjustment of status.  His claiming to be a U.S. citizen, according to the immigration judge, furthered all of those federal benefits.

The appellate court addressed these three alleged benefits.  First, the alien’s spouse had naturalized seven years before the arrest, and therefore his claim to citizenship was unrelated. Second, it was Mr. Castro who brought himself to the attention of the Immigration Service by applying for adjustment of status.  His lying about his citizenship would not further his application for adjustment – instead it might adversely affect it, given that that benefit is discretionary. Mr. Castro even testified that he went back to the police station the next day to correct the booking sheet so that the error would not harm his future adjustment application. The court then turned to the issue of whether Mr. Castro, when he made the false claim, was seeking a federal benefit in hoping to evade DHS detection.  The court found that there was no evidence in the record that the police would have alerted DHS had it known Mr. Castro’s citizenship or that Mr. Castro thought that it would.

The appellate court examined the legislative history and found that the “benefit under…Federal or State law” seems to require an application for a specific immigration benefit, private employment, or public service. Mr. Castro was not seeking any specific benefit from the police in the sense of one created and administered by that agency.  Any tangential benefit such as adjustment of status would be a benefit conferred by DHS and not the police.  To characterize evasion from DHS enforcement as a “benefit” would be to read the limiting language “out of the statute entirely.”  Minimizing the risk that the police would report a person’s arrest to DNS “is not, in and of itself, a legal benefit.”

This case is significant given that it is one of the few reported decision interpreting this non-waivable ground of inadmissibility.  The holding would apply, at least in the third circuit, to similar fact situations.  It is distinguishable from situations where an alien makes a false claim of citizenship in an effort to seek admission to the country or in an application for a specific benefit conferred by state or federal law. But even outside the third circuit, lying about one’s citizenship to the police at the time of arrest should not invoke the permanent bar to admissibility.