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California and the West

Halt Ordered in INS' Citizenship Revocation Drive

July 15, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A U.S. district judge in Seattle has dealt a blow to the federal government's controversial campaign to strip citizenship from hundreds--and possibly thousands--of people who authorities say were wrongly naturalized despite histories of criminal convictions or arrests.

Judge Barbara Jacobs Rothstein slapped an injunction on the Immigration and Naturalization Service, barring the agency "from initiating or continuing" denaturalization cases under a new procedure that speeds the process. The order was issued July 9, but representatives of both sides said they did not learn of it until this week.

INS officials were seeking more information on the extent to which the ruling would stifle its unprecedented denaturalization effort. Scholars call it the largest citizenship-stripping push in U.S. history, eclipsing past initiatives targeting Nazis, communists and others alleged to be disloyal to the U.S.

"We are still studying the order, and we are seeking clarification from the judge and the court on its scope," said Andrew Lluberes, an INS spokesman in Washington.

Exultant lawyers for the plaintiffs--10 new Americans from Seattle to Los Angeles to New York who are facing a loss of citizenship--said the decision means that the INS denaturalization process must halt nationwide pending a trial on its constitutionality.

The INS is reviewing the cases of more than 6,000 newly naturalized immigrants to determine if they should lose their citizenship because they allegedly lied about past convictions or arrests.

The INS has already moved to strip the citizenship of almost 1,700 people under an administrative procedure it launched in 1996. Previously, federal courts heard all such cases, and that could take years--compared to months for the INS process.

Civil libertarians contend that the INS practices violate federal law, including the constitutionally guaranteed right to due process. "Our concern is this supermarket approach to something as fundamental as citizenship," said Linton Joaquin, director of litigation at the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center.

Rothstein rejected a government request to dismiss the suit and instead ordered authorities to cease denaturalization proceedings not filed directly in the federal courts.

All of the cases targeted for denaturalization came to light as part of an audit of more than 1 million people who were sworn in during the Clinton administration's Citizenship USA effort, in which thousands took the oath of allegiance without having criminal background checks.

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