Once you get U.S. citizenship, you typically retain it for life. However, there are certain rare situations in which a citizen may lose their citizenship. Denaturalization involves involuntarily having your citizenship taken away. Renunciation involves voluntarily giving up your citizenship.
Denaturalization has attracted more attention in recent years with the creation of a “denaturalization task force” by the federal government. However, this program likely will target only a very small number of foreign nationals, who concealed serious criminal records during the immigration process or who otherwise committed immigration fraud. Denaturalization can happen only if a citizen improperly received citizenship when they were not eligible for it or if they committed fraud to get citizenship. The federal government can pursue a civil or criminal proceeding in federal court to denaturalize a citizen.
If a citizen loses their citizenship, this does not necessarily mean that they will be required to leave the U.S. Instead, they will revert to their previous legal status in the U.S., unless they are subject to grounds for removal. If they petitioned to have family members join them in the U.S. based on their citizenship, though, those family members will be deported unless they have a different basis for legal status in the U.S. This is because denaturalization means that the individual never actually held citizenship at all.
A citizen can renounce their U.S. citizenship if they voluntarily perform one of certain acts provided by immigration law, and they have the specific intent to relinquish their nationality. In other words, their reason for committing the act must be to relinquish their nationality. Committing any of the enumerated acts does not by itself mean that it was performed voluntarily with the intent to renounce U.S. citizenship. Instead, it creates a presumption that can be rebutted.
Renunciation can occur when a citizen is convicted of treason or participating in an effort to overthrow the U.S. government, or if a citizen formally renounces their citizenship while they are in the U.S. during a period of war. This must be done in writing and receive the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice. While those are the only ways to renounce citizenship while staying in the U.S., there are five additional ways to renounce citizenship while leaving the U.S. These consist of becoming a naturalized citizen of a foreign country after turning 18, declaring allegiance to a foreign government after turning 18, renouncing U.S. nationality before a U.S. diplomat or consular officer in a foreign country, taking a position in the government of another country after turning 18, or joining the armed forces of another country. For the last ground to apply, the individual would need to serve as an officer in the foreign military or join the foreign military while it is fighting a war against the U.S.
Renunciation by becoming a citizen of a foreign country or declaring allegiance to a foreign country will additionally require providing an affidavit of renunciation to a U.S. diplomat or consular officer. An affidavit also may be required if an individual takes a position in the government of another country when the position does not involve making policy decisions.
Rebutting the Presumption of Renunciation
None of the situations above results in an automatic loss of citizenship. The State Department would need to determine that the individual intended to lose their citizenship by committing one of these acts, and the individual could challenge that determination in court. They would not be able to pursue an administrative appeal within the State Department. For example, an individual might be able to overcome the presumption of renunciation if they can show that they plan to continue living in the U.S. They also might have a strong argument if they can show that the circumstances surrounding their actions do not support an inference that they intended to renounce their citizenship.