WASHINGTON — A federal judge ruled Thursday that Hoda Muthana, an American-born woman who joined the Islamic State in 2014 and says she now wants to return home to her family in Alabama, is not a U.S. citizen.
In a surprise ruling from the bench, the judge, Reggie B. Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, abruptly dismissed a lawsuit brought by her family seeking to force the Trump administration to bring her home from a refugee camp in Syria, along with her 2-year-old son — the child of a slain Islamic State fighter.
The ruling leaves the fate of Muthana and her child in doubt amid the deteriorating security environment in northern Syria since Turkey invaded territory held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S. ally. The refugee camp in which Muthana and her son are held is overseen by the SDF.
Muthana’s case has been politically charged since President Donald Trump said in a Twitter post in February that he had directed the secretary of state “not to allow Hoda Muthana back into the Country!”
But it has turned on novel issues about when diplomatic immunity ends and an exception to the general rule that anyone born on American soil is automatically a citizen. Muthana’s father, Ahmed Ali Muthana, was a United Nations diplomat from Yemen. Children of people with diplomatic immunity are not automatically granted citizenship despite being born in the United States. But Ahmed Muthana was discharged from his diplomatic post shortly before she was born in 1994.
The U.S. government, however, said it was notified about that change in early 1995, after she was born, and stopped considering him covered by diplomatic immunity only then. The gap raised the question of whether his diplomatic status expired as a matter of law before or after her birth.
Ahmed Muthana, who stayed in the United States, later applied for naturalized citizenship for his older children, who had been born abroad, but did not apply for Hoda Muthana because the government had led him to believe she was already a citizen — including by issuing her a passport, his lawyers have said.
Walton in March rejected a request by Ahmed Muthana to speed up consideration of the case. This month, Muthana filed a new such motion in light of the “upheaval” that followed Trump’s recent announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the area, which precipitated the fighting between Turkey and the Kurds.
The motion said that Hoda Muthana had been moved to a different refugee camp, known as Roj, after receiving death threats at the first one where she was held, al-Hol, from Islamic State loyalists for having repudiated the group. It also said her son, identified in court documents only as John Doe, was sickly, and that their lives were in danger.
“The citizenship status of Minor John Doe depends upon the status of Ms. Muthana; accordingly, regardless of the choices made by his mother, the health and survival of a young U.S. citizen depend upon the expeditious resolution of Ms. Muthana’s civil case,” it said.
BuzzFeed first reported the ruling.
One of the lawyers representing the Muthanas and who was in the courtroom, Christina A. Jump, said the judge ruled that expedited consideration was now appropriate but then ruled that he was bound by the State Department’s representation of when Ahmed Muthana’s diplomatic immunity ended. She said that they would probably appeal once he issued a written ruling.
“While we are disappointed with and disagree with the court’s ruling today, this is not the end of our client’s legal options,” said Jump, who works for the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America.
After Trump’s declaration on Twitter, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, issued a statement declaring that Hoda Muthana “is not a U.S. citizen and will not be admitted into the United States.”
But her father filed a lawsuit asking for declarations that she was a citizen and that he may send her money without violating a law against supporting terrorism and terrorists, and seeking an order to the government that it take steps to take custody of his daughter and his grandson from the Syrian Democratic Forces and to bring them to U.S. soil.
In dismissing the case, the judge made no ruling about whether it would be lawful for Muthana to send assistance to his daughter, Jump said.
In 2014, Hoda Muthana withdrew from college and used her tuition money to pay for travel to Syria. Once there, she promoted the Islamic State’s ideology on social media and called on Muslims in America to carry out terrorist attacks. But since her capture she has apologized and said she wanted to come home, including in an interview with The New York Times.
Another of her lawyers, Charles Swift, has said she had wanted to leave earlier but feared being executed, and noted that the U.S. government had previously considered her a citizen and issued her a passport.
The State Department canceled her passport in 2016 — under the Obama administration — and the Justice Department argued that she did not qualify to be a U.S. citizen under an exception to birthright citizenship in the Constitution for children of foreign diplomats.
Jump stressed that “the judge today ruled based on his interpretation of when diplomatic immunity ends.
“The court did not base its ruling on a tweet by the president, or by any supposed proclamation made by any official,” she continued. “United States citizenship cannot be revoked by tweet or any other form of social media, and today’s ruling does not change that.”