By Debbie Smith
When does the government's "mishandling" of a citizenship case rise to the level of a constitutional violation such that a federal court may confer citizenship? In Brown v. Holder, No. 11-71458 (9th Cir. August 18, 2014), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Mr. Brown may be able to establish that he is a citizen of the United States if he can demonstrate in district court that the former INS’s mishandling of his citizenship case resulted in a violation of his due process rights. The court transferred Mr. Brown's case to the district court to permit him to present evidence regarding his claim that he is entitled to U.S. citizenship.
The "Mishandling" Facts
Mr. Brown, a citizen of India, entered the United States as a lawful permanent resident in March 1977 at age 9 along with his parents. His parents filed for naturalization in April 1983. In his mother's naturalization application, she listed Mr. Brown as a dependent. If both of his parents naturalized by Mr. Brown's 18th birthday on July 4, 1986, Mr. Brown would have derived citizenship through them. Although Mr. Brown's father naturalized in November 1985, the INS lost his mother's naturalization application and required that she re-file a second application. In February 1986, Mr. Brown's mother filed a second naturalization application and was interviewed on it. However, she was not sworn-in and naturalized until a month after Mr. Brown's 18th birthday. By that time, he was no longer eligible to derive citizenship.
Mr. Brown continued his efforts to naturalize. In 1990, Mr. Brown went to the INS office to apply for naturalization or a certificate of citizenship and was informed that he did not need to naturalize because his parents were already U.S. citizens. In February 1996, Mr. Brown filed a Form N-400 to apply for naturalization and was told that an application had been approved . In July 1996, Mr. Brown inquired about naturalization again and received a computer print-out that stated "CASE CLOSED" and "NATURALIZED." In December 2001, Mr. Brown applied for a certificate of citizenship on Form N-600. Although INS rejected his application because he was over 18, he was given an INS computer print-out with the information "CASE CLOSED" and "NATURALIZED." A month later, in January 2001, INS sent Mr. Brown a letter denying the April 1983 request for derivative citizenship because he had turned 18 before both parents naturalized.
Derivation Laws Affecting Mr. Brown
U.S. citizen parents transmit citizenship automatically to their lawful permanent resident children born abroad if certain conditions are met. Derivation of citizenship laws have changed three times since December 1952. The law that was in effect when Mr. Brown's mother listed him as a dependent on her N-400 in 1983 provided that legal permanent resident children under the age of 18 became United States citizens when both parents naturalized, or one parent naturalized and the other was a U.S. citizen at birth. The only exceptions to the requirement that both parents naturalize was if (1) the second parent was deceased, or (2) the parents were legally separated, and the naturalizing parent had legal custody. In addition, children must have been unmarried in order to derive citizenship. This rule, requiring the naturalization of both parents, remained the law until the effective date of the Child Citizenship Act, February 27, 2001.
The Child Citizenship Act provided that legal resident children under the age of 18 automatically derived U.S. citizenship if one of their parents was either born in the United States or naturalized. The Child Citizenship Act also required that the children must be unmarried and living in the U.S. in the legal and physical custody of the U.S. citizen parent.
The Constitutional Claim
Mr. Brown contended that INS violated his right to procedural due process in rejecting his petitions for naturalization. He argued that the government mishandled his mother's naturalization claim thereby preventing her naturalization until after his 18th birthday. His mother's naturalization application had been pending for 2 1/2 years before she was informed that it was lost. And her naturalization oath ceremony did not occur until her application had been pending a total of 3 1/2 years from the time of her original filing. Mr. Brown also asserted that by telling him he was already a citizen, the government unlawfully prevented him from naturalizing on his own after he had turned 18. The court noted that Mr. Brown had a protected interest in being able to apply for citizenship -- both derivatively through his mother and independently as an adult.
The court concluded that if Mr. Brown could show that INS "arbitrarily and intentionally obstructed his application," his constitutional right to due process would have been violated. While the court did recommend what degree of government misconduct would constitute a due process violation in Mr. Brown's case, it acknowledged that there may be cases where egregious government conduct may result in the court fashioning an appropriate remedy. The immigration statute provides that if the an individual claims to be a citizen of the United States, if there is an issue or dispute regarding material facts, the court of appeals should transfer the case to the district court. Because the record in this case indicated factual disputes between the government and Mr. Brown, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals transferred Mr. Brown's naturalization claim to the district court for an evidentiary hearing. At the district court hearing, the court will consider whether Mr. Brown's due process rights were violated and whether INS acted with a sufficient culpability or intentionality that the court should grant Mr. Brown's citizenship as a remedy.
The Brown v. Holder decision highlights the importance of obtaining a noncitizen's "A" file to review the complete history of the case – all prior applications and the government's response to them – before proceeding with the case.