Will the U.S. Move to Citizenship-Strip ISIS Fighters?

by Peter Spiro

It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing proposals to take away the citizenship of Americans fighting for ISIS/ISIL forces in Syria and Iraq. They have drawn renewed attention in the wake of James Foley’s beheading (apparently by a British citizen) and the death, reported at length today in the NYT, of American Douglas McCain in Syria. Several hundred individuals with Western citizenships are thought to be fighting with the extreme Sunni group.

A proposal to expatriate terrorists associated with entities hostile to the United States went nowhere in 2010 when Joe Lieberman’s Terrorist Expatriation Act failed to garner so much as a committee hearing. A similar initiative might have more legs today.

The Lieberman effort had the Times Square bombing as a hook, but that just looked like ordinary crime. (There was also the problem of Joe Lieberman.) The face of the ISIL fighters is way more scary and foreign. They make bin Laden look like Jesse James — criminal, but not unrecognizable. (Bin Laden had a brother who went to Harvard Law School.) Al-Qaeda has a lot of blood on its hands, but it doesn’t go around cutting peoples heads off and tweeting the results.

The U.S. would be following the UK and Canada’s lead, both of which have adopted expatriation measures aimed at citizens fighting in Syria. That gives U.S. legislators some cover on the international human rights front. Even human-rights-pure Norway is looking to follow suit.

That doesn’t mean terrorist expatriation would make any more sense now than it did in 2010. Any punitive intent would be clearly unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s 1958 decision in Trop v. Dulles. The law would pass the Court’s test only if the conduct was taken to reflect an individual’s intent to relinquish citizenship. In other words, the law would have to work from the calculation that fighting for ISIS evidences an individual’s desire to expatriate. (For the full constitutional analysis, see this.)

Beyond the constitutional niceties, it’s not clear what expatriation would accomplish. True, ISIS may look to weaponize adherents with premium Western passports and visa-free mobility. But you couldn’t take away someone’s citizenship for being associated with ISIS before you knew that he was associated with ISIS. Once a citizen is identified as an ISIS fighter, you can bet he gets put on a watch list. That minimizes the threat. There’s no case in which citizenship-stripping adds much to the counter-terror toolbox.

That may not stop legislators from adding expatriation to their rallying calls. Chalk it up to counter-terror showboating. But it won’t be any more than that.

http://opiniojuris.org/2014/08/27/will-u-s-move-citizenship-strip-isis-fighters/

One Response

  1. more than “intent,” more esp. than implied “intent” — there must be a knowing and voluntary relinquishment of U.S. citizenship. And as you intimate, why try in any event? If citizenship is retained the U.S. will retain nationality jurisdiction over conduct of a U.S. national abroad. In some cases, the U.S. might have universal or protective, even objective territorial jurisdiction, but why throw away nationality jurisdiction, especially regarding crimes against the state like treason, failure to pay “income” taxes, etc.

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