by Virginia Postrel • Aug 4, 2003 at 5:09 pm
Reader (and immigration-policy expert) Paul Donnelly writes:
The Bush administration's spring fling to seek new powers against terrorism included something starkly worse than simply arrest without trial. Ashcroft's lawyers actually looked at stripping U.S. citizenship -- and several conservatives (notably the Weekly Standard folks) yawned.
The reason this is a big deal is that it turns the Founding upside down. In the U.S.A, the individual is sovereign and "We, the People" rule. In other words, we invented citizenship. Unlike a subject, being a citizen can neither be imposed on someone, nor can it be taken away if lawfully acquired -- although you can give it up, if you want. But this is not widely understood, which is why this extremely bad idea may not be dead.
Throughout the first part of the last century, Congress enacted a series of "expatriating acts", by which somebody would be considered to have given up their citizenship, even if they didn't want to: fighting in another nation's armed forces, or serving in its government, even just voting in its elections. Each of these has been thrown out by the courts, on the principle that it is the individual citizen who may choose to give up U.S. citizenship -- and if they do not, as the Supreme Court said in 1968 over an American voting in Israel's elections: the U.S. government has "no power" to take it away.
It's not surprising that prosecutors would want to strip away citizenship. But it is alarming that conservatives didn't leap to object to this inversion of sovereignty -- I had one moderately influential guy flat out insist that of course the government could hold 'a routine denaturalization' proceeding to take citizenship away from a terrorist.
Except -- there are no 'denaturalization' hearings convened by the government, because the government doesn't have that power. Why would the Bush administration even want it? There was no problem prosecuting, convicting, and executing terrorist U.S. citizen Timothy McVeigh -- and there is no need to strip citizenship from anybody, except: 1) to hide incompetent police work, or 2) to deport 'em to countries which might torture 'em.
Think about it. What OTHER reason could there be for the Attorney General to seek authority to take citizenship away from somebody who acquired it lawfully (for instance, by being born here) and doesn't want to give it up?
Paul and I sometimes disagree, but this isn't one of those times. If a single horrific attack can evoke this sort of policy reaction from conservative intellectuals and the Bush administration, what happens if we get hit again? As Glenn Reynolds noted in a link to my earlier post, some civil libertarians have hurt the cause of liberty by crying wolf too often. But that doesn't mean wolves don't exist.