Immigration & Naturalization Law
The Consequences of Saying You Are a U.S. Citizen if You Are Not One
Many people claim to be U.S. citizens without realizing the big mistake they are making. This can be common when first entering the United States, applying to study at a university, or applying for a job. If you lie, you can face legal consequences down the road. Even a false citizenship claim that is an honest mistake can cause problems.
False claims about being a U.S. citizen to obtain federal or state benefits may cause you to be:
- Deported from the country or placed into removal proceedings
- Permanently unacceptable for future immigration
- Unable to return to the United States, even with a visa
- Unable to gain future legal status in the country
People may have a number of reasons why they would make a false claim of citizenship status. There are a number of benefits that come with legal immigration status, including the ability to work and legal protections. Natural-born citizens have legal status from birth. People who are born in other countries have to be “naturalized.”
Before a foreign-born person can become a U.S. citizen, most people first get lawful permanent residency (LPR) status. This is also known as a “green card.” Green card holders have many of the same legal rights and responsibilities as citizens but can have their status taken away. After three to five years with a green card, an LPR can apply for citizenship.
Citizenship still requires applying for citizenship and meeting the necessary requirements, including:
- Passing the citizenship test
- Being able to read, write, and speak English
- Living continuously in the United States for a set number of years
- Being at least 18 years old
- Having good moral character
The most common false claims that someone is a U.S. citizen occur in the following circumstances:
- Filling out an I-9 employment eligibility qualification verification form
- Applying for a student loan
- Registering to vote in any local, state, or federal election
- Trying to obtain a U.S. passport
- Applying for certain benefits that are restricted to only U.S. citizens
There may be other penalties associated with making false statements or misrepresentations on official government forms. For example, the I-9 form carries a warning that federal law provides for imprisonment and fines for false statements. Checking the U.S. citizen box is made under penalty of perjury.
The laws for citizenship and lawful status in the U.S. are always changing, and politicians are always saying things to the media that get mistaken for actual policies. As a result, it is easy to get confused about who is a U.S. citizen. Many people who incorrectly claim to be legal citizens find out they do not have valid citizenship.
Under U.S. immigration law, there are limited exceptions to deportation based on false claims of citizenship. This allows foreign-born children to avoid the harshest penalties of removal proceedings for a false claim to citizenship if:
- Their parents are U.S. citizens
- They are a minor when making the claim of citizenship
- They were a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) before age 16
- They reasonably believed they are a citizen
There is another exception to deportation for a false claim to citizenship. Non-citizens who made a false claim before September 30, 1996, can apply for a waiver.
That is because the law was not clear before this date. This waiver allows people who made a false claim to still seek legal status. This waiver uses the grounds of inadmissibility for fraud and false representation.
Making a false statement typically happens at border crossings and at migration points at airports.
You have the option to voluntarily retract your statement before the truth is exposed, however. This provides an opportunity for an immigration judge to review your case and release you from punishment. You can voluntarily retract a false claim of citizenship if you:
- Have overstayed your visa
- Have never had legal status in the United States
It should be noted that a timely retraction doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be prosecuted for violating the law. Claiming to be a U.S. citizen in any of the cases mentioned above is illegal. There are very few known cases of people who received a pardon in these situations.
If you have any other concerns after false claims of citizenship, contact an immigration attorney as soon as possible. Experienced attorneys can explain the consequences of getting into trouble with immigration authorities and provide legal representation before an immigration judge.
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