Lionel Jean-Baptiste is back where he started when he first arrived as a refugee 26 years ago: Krome.
Haitian-born Jean-Baptiste is being held at the West Miami-Dade detention facility for foreign nationals after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers picked him up June 14—nearly a year after the Supreme Court refused to hear his case.
Jean-Baptiste, 58, made immigration-law history as the first naturalized American in recent times stripped of his citizenship after being convicted of a crime. The case marked a departure from typical denaturalization practice in which immigration authorities revoke citizenship upon learning that an applicant lied about his past—generally trying to conceal a criminal record when applying for citizenship.
But in Jean-Baptiste’s case, he had no criminal record when he obtained citizenship. His arrest, trial and conviction over drug-trafficking charges all took place after he became a citizen.
Jean-Baptiste challenged ICE’s efforts to revoke his citizenship, but lost when a federal appeals court ruled early last year that the mere commission of a crime is enough to revoke citizenship—even if the person was not charged or convicted when he swore allegiance to the United States.
“Thorough investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the presentation of solid fact-based evidence led to the denaturalization of Mr. Jean-Baptiste,” said Riah Ramlogan, chief counsel for ICE in Miami.
“ICE, as mandated by law, is now seeking Mr. Jean-Baptiste’s removal based on his aggravated felony convictions for conspiracy to traffic cocaine. We are committed to protecting our law-abiding citizens by securing the removal of criminal aliens from the United States.”
Jean-Baptiste’s crime occurred in March 1995, more than a year before he became an American and long before he was charged, arrested and convicted—the usual triggers for a foreign national to be targeted for deportation. An undercover officer said Jean-Baptiste helped arrange two crack cocaine sales near his small Little Haiti restaurant. He denied the charges, saying the officer simply asked him where she could buy drugs, and he pointed across the street.
When Jean-Baptiste obtained citizenship in April 1996, his lawyer has said, he was not aware of the investigation against him. He was indicted and arrested in October 1996, six months after his naturalization. He was convicted in January 1997 and served seven years in prison.
It wasn’t until five years after his conviction, in 2002, that immigration authorities learned of the case—possibly from a prison system official—and began citizenship revocation proceedings.
Jean-Baptiste then challenged authorities in federal court and took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—and lost.
Some immigration experts believe the case will make it easier for immigration authorities to revoke the citizenship of naturalized U.S. citizens.
“The horrible effect of this decision is to create a substantial amount of uncertainty for anyone who is a naturalized citizen,” said Miami immigration lawyer Ira Kurzban, considered a national authority on immigration law.