U.S. citizenship is a right protected by the Constitution; it is not a privilege that can be taken away at will.
That truth needs to be maintained.
Several members of Congress have sponsored a bill that would allow the government to take away citizenship and kick certain people out of the country. The Terrorist Expatriation Act, presented by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. and Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Reps. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., and Charlie Dent, R-Pa., would enable government officials to revoke U.S. citizenship from people who commit acts that are deemed terrorist in nature. People stripped of their nationality could then be deported out of this country.
The first obvious problem with this proposal would be where such a person would be sent. Without established citizenship of another country, he would belong to no one. No other country could be forced to accept such a person if it didn’t want that person.
More importantly, it would give a powerful tool against people who make legitimate protests against the government or specific policies. Could a person be considered a terrorist simply for protesting government policies, even to the point of advocating violence? The threat of expatriation could effectively stifle valid dissent, which this country traditionally and rightly has recognized can lead to necessary reform and progress.
One argument in favor of the bill is the idea that one’s actions against other Americans, or against the government itself, could be seen as de facto renunciation of citizenship. That’s a dangerous assumption to make, however. Consider, for example, defiance of laws that brought about the end of slavery, women’s suffrage or civil rights reforms. All these actions — some that included violent confrontations with law enforcers — at the time were seen as challenges to the authority of the nation and its lawmaking bodies. That’s exactly what they were, and today most Americans see that defiance as justified, even necessary.
It is for this reason that anti-sedition legislation has been struck down, from pre-Revolutionary days to as late as the 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio Supreme Court ruling.
Besides, as many critics already have pointed out, current laws already offer effective ways to deal with people who commit, or attempt to commit, heinous acts against their fellow citizens. Many terrorists have been imprisoned for life, and Timothy McVeigh was put to death for his deadly attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Beyond this act’s clear clash with our First Amendment rights is the likelihood that citizenship revocation could be extended to other instances. Many people already are calling for legislation that would deny citizenship to people born in this country of their parents are not U.S. citizens. Their targets are the “anchor babies” who can, once they become adults, help family members become legal U.S. residents or naturalized citizens.
Under our Constitution, citizenship is a right that can only be lost if it was obtained fraudulently or if it is renounced voluntarily. Current law already effectively deals with major acts of violence. Forced revocation of citizenship would bring no effective benefit, but raises the possibility of abuse.
Passage of the Terrorist Expatriation Act itself is a greater threat to the Constitution than any individual violent act, which can easily be handled through our current system of law enforcement and adjudication.