5,000 Face Losing New Citizenship Pressed By Republicans To Review Process, Ins Uncovers Many Who Were Wrongly Naturalized

The Clinton administration will seek to strip the citizenship of nearly 5,000 immigrants who were wrongly naturalized during an immigration drive last year, federal officials said Friday.

Revoking that many citizenships at any given time is without precedent for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and it poses enormous legal and logistical challenges for the government. Until now, the agency has never dealt with more than about two dozen revocations a year.

Beginning last fall, Republicans accused the administration of mounting an election-year campaign to streamline citizenship procedures to allow more than 180,000 immigrants to become citizens before the November elections without having their criminal records fully checked.

As a result of these criticisms, the INS undertook an unprecedented review of the nearly 1.1 million people who were granted citizenship between September 1995 and September 1996 to determine how many were wrongfully naturalized.

An audit whose findings were released to Congress on Friday found that 16,400 of the new citizens had a record of at least one felony arrest. Arrest or conviction, by itself, is not grounds for revoking someone’s citizenship. But the audit, which is nearly complete, also found 4,946 cases in which a criminal arrest should have disqualified an applicant or in which an applicant lied about his or her criminal history.

“We believe that we are on firm ground in proceeding on administrative revocations where somebody has factually made a misrepresentation on a felony arrest,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Colgate said at a news conference Friday.

Friday’s findings mark the latest blow to the beleaguered immigration agency and its Citizenship USA program. The program was started in late 1995 to address a mounting backlog of citizenship applications, but Republicans contend it has been hijacked by White House political operatives along the way for electione-ering purposes.

Doris Meissner, the commissioner of immigration and naturalization, issued a set of sweeping safeguards to prevent immigrants with criminal records from becoming citizens. But an independent review concluded in April that many of the agency’s employees had ignored the directives.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who has been the administration’s most severe critic on the citizenship issue, praised the immigration service Friday for “making good progress” in tracking down the scofflaws.

“The big question is, ‘Is the INS going to be successful in correcting their mistakes, are they going to be successful in denaturalizing these roughly 5,000 individuals who were wrongly made citizens?’ ” Smith said.

In some cases, the offenses may be serious enough, such as a felony conviction for rape or murder, that an individual could have his citizenship revoked and be deported to his native country. But lying under oath to an immigration examiner is not by itself a deportable offense, and in those circumstances, a naturalized citizen would revert to a legal resident alien.

The immigration service faces enormous hurdles in revoking the citizenship of the immigrants. In the 1995 fiscal year, the latest year for which figures are available, the agency revoked the citizenship of 20 people in procedures that typically took months to complete.

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