There are four ways to become a US citizen: citizenship by birth in the U.S., citizenship through derivation, citizenship through acquisition, and citizenship through naturalization. Most of the times, people become U.S. citizens through the process of naturalization, which requires them to file a form N-400. After reviewing the form N-400, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will schedule an interview for the applicant and have the applicant finish a series of tests on the interview regarding English, US history and US government. Finally, on a scheduled public ceremony, the certification will be issued to the applicant after taking the oath of allegiance.

The steps of applying to be a naturalized U.S. citizen will only be waived in extremely rare circumstances, mostly related to mental or physical disability. If a certification of naturalization or citizenship is issued without completing these steps, it will very likely to be ineffective or illegal and consequently be canceled by the USCIS.

Individuals who are not U.S. citizens but who hold themselves out to be U.S. citizens may be subject to severe legal consequences, such as being placed into removal proceedings with little prospect of being eligible for relief or waiver.  Falsely claiming to be a US citizen has been a grave offense under U.S. immigration law and even more so since September 30, 1996 with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA).  Under this law, any foreign national who falsely represents, or has falsely represented, himself or herself to be a citizen of the United States for any purpose is inadmissible. Foreign nationals in this situation will be subject to removal and discretionary waivers will generally be unavailable, unless the foreign nationals are able to qualify for asylum or some other relief, such as cancellation of removal.

Considering that foreign nationals who have committed crimes or immigration violations may still qualify for a waiver of inadmissibility, making a false claim to US citizenship is perhaps one of the most serious offences in the eyes of US immigration courts and agencies. There is one limited exception for if each natural parent of the foreign national (or, in the case of an adopted foreign national, each adopted parent of the foreign national) is or was a citizen (whether by birth or naturalization), the foreign national permanently resided in the United States prior to attaining the age of 16, and the foreign national reasonably believed at the time of making such representation that he or she was a citizen.

The most common problem area in which the issue of false claim to U.S. citizenship occurs is when job applicants are completing form I-9 for Employment Eligibility Verification. Individuals who select “a citizen of the United States” or “a noncitizen national of the United State” for any reason, without being actually an American citizen or national, will very likely to be considered as having made a false claim of U.S. citizenship.  A “noncitizen national of the United State” means an individual born in American Samoa, certain former citizens of the former Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and certain children of non-citizen nationals born abroad.  Only a very small population nowadays can fit in this category.

Some other high-risk areas include applying for state driver’s licenses, federal mortgages, in-state university tuition (including financial aid), other state or federal benefits that are restricted to U.S. citizens. Arrest or imprisonment could also be problematic areas because sometimes local police or prisons may not have available options that show specific immigration status on their forms and documents for foreign nationals to select. Voter registration and passport applications are especially high-risk areas because some permanent residents or green card holders may not know that they are ineligible to vote or to obtain U.S. passport.

If a mistake was made, a timely retraction is necessary. If the form I-9 or any other false claim was retracted before it was exposed to an immigration office, it may still be considered a timely retraction. Otherwise, the false claim will likely result in inadmissibility.

What happens if an individual has already received a certificate of citizenship or a certificate of naturalization? In 2019 the Board of Immigration Appeals in Matter of Zhang makes it clear that if the U.S. citizenship was acquired unlawfully (e.g. issued by a federal agent who was illegally selling the citizenship certificates), claiming to be a US citizen is still going to lead to inadmissibility and can still result in removal.  Additionally, it is not necessary to show intent to establish that the foreign national is deportable for making a false representation of U.S. citizenship.

If an individual has any doubt about whether or not he or she is a citizen of the United States or is eligible for U.S. citizenship, talk to an immigration lawyer before making any claims to avoid potentially serious legal consequences.