How the Boston Bombing Suspect Became a U.S. Citizen

In April 2002, Anzor Tsarnaev apparently arrived in the United States on a tourist visa with his sons Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. Dzhokhar became a citizen. Here's how that process worked — and why it would likely have been impossible to predict what happened next.

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In April 2002, Anzor Tsarnaev apparently arrived in the United States on a tourist visa with his sons Tamerlan, 15, and Dzhokhar, 8 — now the suspects in the ongoing Boston Marathon bombing manhunt. Over time, the family gained asylum. Dzhokhar became a citizen. We spoke with David Leopold of Leopold and Associates, an immigration attorney who's been practicing law in Cleveland since the early 1990s, who walked us through how that process worked — and why it would likely have been impossible to predict what happened to Dzhokhar next.

Getting a tourist visa

The simplest part of the family's trip would be acquiring the tourist visa. The State Department, which manages the issuing process, explains how to get a visa on its website. Fill out a form, have an interview, get your visa.

Where the Tsarnaevs were applying from, like many of the details of the narrative at this point, is not entirely clear. In 2001, they apparently moved to Kyrgyzstan, which may have been where the family lived when it applied.

This visa application is the first point at which the government would begin the most important part of the process: conducting a security screening of the applicants. Given the number of tourists who visit the United States each year and the limited time period of the tourist visa (six months, at most), this is the least rigorous security screening conducted. (For what it's worth, the 9/11 hijackers used tourist and business visas to access the country.)

Getting asylum

At some point within their first year of being here, the family would have had to apply for asylum. (If they'd already outstayed their six-month visa, they could have applied defensively if the government was trying to deport them.) Asylum-seekers, like those seeking refugee status, must demonstrate that they have a "well-founded fear" of persecution in their home countries. This is a necessarily subjective determination for the government to make, one that has been subject to various legal decisions over the years. (For those curious: Asylum seekers apply for refugee status from within the U.S.; refugees seek it from their home countries.)

In the usual process, the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services then completes another security review of the applicant — and any of the applicant's derivatives, meaning spouses and children. After September 11, 2001, the identification process for any visitor became much more technical, advancing from fingerprinting to more robust biometric identification. Once applying for asylum, the government dives deep into background: previous criminal convictions, any hint of involvement with terrorism.

Applicants don't necessarily know if they've failed a security check. According to Leopold, the immigration lawyer, they'll often be told that their application is being held for "administrative processing." While the application is held, the applicant is allowed to stay in the country, if they're already here.

At the time that the Tsarnaevs applied for asylum, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were very young. There was almost certainly nothing in their background that would have raised any red flags; apparently, there was nothing in the father's either. Here, Leopold made a key point: "You can't predict future behavior." For any democratic country that wants to participate in international society, Leopold pointed out, you have to assume some level of risk. Despite that, "the systems they have in place," meaning those security screenings, are "doing the job."

It's not guaranteed that we'll learn significantly more about the family given the robust dossier the government has on them. According to Leopold, those records are very hard to have made public.

Becoming a permanent resident

After a year of holding status as asylum seekers, the family would be eligible to apply for green cards. Again, a security check, which by now would include reviews of the entire immigration application history to ensure that there was no apparent fraud. In 2007, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — the younger brother, suspect 2 — received this status. Despite early reports, his brother Tamerlan apparently never did. At some point, he returned to Russia to renew his passport, according to his father.

Becoming a citizen

Five years after getting a green card, a permanent resident can apply for naturalization. The application kicks off perhaps the most complex stretch of background-checking and validation.

An applicant must be of "good moral character," meaning that he or she cannot have committed any serious crimes, or, in some cases, even any minor ones. They have to demonstrate the ability to speak and write in English. They must pass a civics test. At that point, the applicant qualifies for citizenship.

Citizenship and Immigration Services will interview an applicant and launch another series of background checks, again including a review of the entire history of his immigration status. It's possible at this point that the applicant could be put back into the system for removal — deportation — if any application fraud is found, or a serious crime, for example.

But if not, he or she becomes a citizen, sworn in by a judge. That person then has all of the rights of a U.S. citizen. Last September — September 11th, in fact — Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took the oath, during a large ceremony held at TD Bank Garden.

His brother, according to The Times, wasn't so lucky; his "moral character" didn't make the grade.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev got a green card in 2007, and became a naturalized United States citizen on Sept. 11, 2012, officials said. Tamerlan was denied citizenship after he was involved in a domestic-violence episode, his father said.

If Dzhokhar survives the manhunt, if he's convicted of setting the bombs at the Boston Marathon, — he's still a citizen. Leopold was clear on this point. The government can't simply revoke citizenship because it wants to. If it found that Dzhokhar's application for naturalization was fraudulent, it could. Which, Leopold indicated, might include the government deciding that his sworn oath was insincere. That oath reads, in part:

I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; … I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same …

The government could theoretically decide that Dzhokhar, in essence, didn't mean it. In that case, Leopold thought, it might be possible he loses his status, and could be deported. Even if none of the various levels of detailed security checks suggested he shouldn't be allowed to be a citizen, his broken word might do the trick.

Update: The Times updates its report:

It had been previously reported that Mr. Tsarnaev’s application might have been held up because of a domestic abuse episode. But the officials said that it was the record of the F.B.I. interview that threw up red flags and halted, at least temporarily, Mr. Tsarnaev’s citizenship application. Federal  law enforcement officials reported on Friday that the F.B.I. interviewed Mr. Tsarnaev in January 2011 at the request of the Russian government, which suspected that he had ties to Chechen terrorists. 

Reinforcing Leopold's point about the way in which security holds remain opaque.

Correction: Early reports that it was Tamerlan who received his citizenship were incorrect. Also, as the State Department only handles residency requests from outside of the United States, the article has been updated.

Top photo: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, at left, poses for a photo after graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.