American Doctor Told He’s No Longer a Citizen

A bureaucratic nightmare.

WaPo (“A doctor tried to renew his passport. Now he’s no longer a citizen.“):

Siavash Sobhani is stateless.

The Northern Virginia doctor knows at least that much about his situation. He knows he is no longer considered a citizen of the United States — the place where he was born, went to school and has practiced medicine for more than 30 years — and that he also belongs to no other place.


As he tells it, when he sent in an application for a new passport in February, he had no reason to expect he’d face any difficulties. He had renewed his passport several times previously without problems. This time, it was set to expire in June, and he wanted to make sure he had a valid one in hand before his family took a trip in July.

But he did not receive a new passport. Instead, at the age of 61, he lost what he had held since he was an infant: U.S. citizenship.

A letter from a State Department official informed him that he should not have been granted citizenship at the time of his birth because his father was a diplomat with the Embassy of Iran. The letter directed Sobhani to a website where he could apply for lawful permanent residence.


The U.S. government didn’t take away Sobhani’s citizenship because of anything he did. The letter points to a bureaucratic reason: Those born in the United States to parents who have diplomatic immunity do not acquire U.S. citizenship at birth.

“As a member of your parent’s household at the time of your birth, you also enjoyed full diplomatic immunity from the jurisdiction of the United States,” reads the letter. “As such, you were born not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. Therefore, you did not acquire U.S. citizenship at birth.”

As a matter of law, this is quite right. Though controversial, it has long been established that almost anyone born in the United States is instantly a citizen. The exceptions are rare cases like this one, where the person was not subject to US law. Sobhani should never have been declared a citizen.

As a matter of policy and conscience, however, this is a travesty. Sobhani has lived as an American citizen—and by all accounts, a great contributor to American society—all 61 of his years.

The consequences of following the law and not common sense are rather awful.

Can he still legally practice medicine? Will the money he has earned over his career count toward his Social Security benefits if his Social Security number changes? Will he get to attend his son’s destination wedding next year?

Sobhani was hesitant to speak publicly about his situation. He has applied for permanent residence, as instructed, and he doesn’t want to do anything that might upset government officials who hold his fate in their hands. But he also knows how slowly the country’s immigration system can move, and he worries that he could wait in limbo for years if top officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) don’t hear about his case and agree to help him. He said he has already spent more than $40,000 on legal fees and still doesn’t know when his case might be resolved.

“I’m waiting for an interview, but does that mean I wait another year for an interview?” he said. “Then another three years for the next step? Then another 10 years before I can travel outside of the country?”

At his age — he turned 62 this month — he had already started to think about retirement. He and his wife planned to spend this year exploring other countries in hopes of finding a community where they could buy a home. Now, he can’t even visit a friend in London who recently had a stroke, or his father-in-law, who lives in Lebanon and is seriously ill.

“If he passes away, I can’t even go to his funeral,” Sobhani said.

Sobhani uses the words “upsetting,” “frustrating” and “distressing” to describe what he has been going through. His language is gentler than what many people would use if they suddenly lost the freedoms, protections and benefits that come with U.S. citizenship — all because of a paperwork mistake that was made when they were too young to read.

One would think this situation would be easy to correct. There’s been a widespread—if certainly not universal—consensus that the so-called DREAMers (those brought here illegally when they were small children and who have lived in the country for a number of years) should be allowed to stay rather than deported to a country they never knew.

Sobhani’s case should be even more straightforward. He was born here, went to school here, graduated medical school here, and practiced medicine and paid taxes here for decades. He’s only nominally Iranian and, in any case, “said he cannot safely live in Iran because he has spoken out against the government.”

Sobhani wrote letters to Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) requesting their help, saying he had “the utmost respect for the laws governing this country.” He also noted that he has dedicated his career to helping people in Virginia and the D.C. region and has been “directly involved in the care of tens of thousands of lives, currently with an active patient panel of over 3,000 patients.”

“I can only hope that the impact I’ve made in caring for our community of Virginians, your constituents, for the past 30 years will hold some weight in swaying your decision to intervene on my behalf,” he wrote.

He shared a letter that Connolly wrote to a USCIS official on his behalf.

“I trust that you can imagine how difficult it must be to believe that you were a citizen of the U.S. your entire life, just to find out you actually were not,” Connolly wrote. He added, “Our office is respectfully requesting all possible consideration in expediting this case in accordance with U.S. laws and regulations.”

Sobhani said he hopes his citizenship will be restored within six months, but he has no idea if that’s a realistic expectation. He has no idea if he will have a passport in time to attend his son’s wedding in Portugal next year or if he will get to make those retirement scouting trips with his wife anytime soon.

He has no idea how long he will remain stateless.

This seems like an occasion where a private bill, rather than urging a bureaucracy to do what it lacks the authority to do, would be the appropriate action. I’m insufficiently versed in immigration law to know whether President Biden has the authority to restore citizenship via executive order.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Truly awful.

  2. Jen says:

    I had no idea that people born in the US to parents working in an embassy are not considered citizens by birth*. I know I have friends whose siblings were born in the US under these circumstances and I’m pretty sure a number of them have mentioned carrying US passports. I do wonder how much of these are lost in a bureaucratic shuffle and his managed to surface due to his parents’ country of origin.

    ETA: *This is exactly why any US embassy kid born abroad would be considered a birthright citizen, though…so, makes sense.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    He has applied for permanent residence, as instructed, and he doesn’t want to do anything that might upset government officials who hold his fate in their hands.

    This is step one. Not an expert in any way shape or form so I googled it. I was correct:

    In general, you may qualify for naturalization if you are at least 18 years old and have been a permanent resident for at least 5 years (or 3 years if you are married to a U.S. citizen) and meet all other eligibility requirements.

    So the bureaucracy is not going to help him attend his son’s wedding in Portugal. Pretty sure Congress can act and also pretty sure Biden would sign. But for right now, he should hire a lawyer, not to fight in court, but to smooth out all the unseen obstacles that surely await him in his quest.

    .eta: @Jen: I was aware of it but not privy to all the ins and outs.

  4. Stormy Dragon says:

    Good news for the doctor is that since 2023 – 61 < 1972, he's likely eligible for Permanent Residency Status under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 amnesty provisions.

    Regarding immigration law BS, I have a friend who almost got deported during the Trump administration for similar reasons:
    1. Parents were undocumented immigrants who became US citizens due to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986
    2. Friend was born in US after parents became citizens, so is a US citizen both via parentage and birth location
    3. However, was born using a midwife so there's no formal documentation of exactly when or where she was born
    4. Normal procedure in cases like this is for parents to make an affidavit about the details of #2
    5. But… friend is a transgender woman who has been disowned by said parents and they're unwilling to participate in such an affidavit.

    Same story happened: applied to renew passport, got informed "oh, you've not really been a citizen all along" and had to spend years cleaning up the mess.

    And do you know why? Because the Trump administration was deliberately trying to find minor technical violations that it could use as a basis for de-naturalizing people:

    APNewsBreak: US launches bid to find citizenship cheaters

    Until now, the agency has pursued cases as they arose but not through a coordinated effort, Cissna said. He said he hopes the agency’s new office in Los Angeles will be running by next year but added that investigating and referring cases for prosecution will likely take longer.

    Both my friend and Dr. Sobhani here were victims of Republican white supremacist ideology.

  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    My general feeling is that for people in the interior of the US (as opposed to people at a border crossing), the burden of proof for immigration cases should be the opposite of what it currently is. That is, the burden should be on the plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant is in the country illegally, not on the defendant to demonstrate that they are in the country legally.

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    This seems like an occasion where a private bill, rather than urging a bureaucracy to do what it lacks the authority to do, would be the appropriate action.

    You’d think, and in the America of the past, even 10 years ago, it would have happened. But today? More likely it would be caught up in the culture/immigration war battles.

    EDIT: After all, the Dreamers…

  7. Bill Jempty says:

    Back in my blogging days, I used to regularly write about immigration mistakes* like deporting US citizens or bad policies like the since overturned ‘Widow Penalty’. BTW I don’t there are too many readers today who were around in 2007 when I wrote a post for here on that topic.

    *- One of my greatest fears is my naturalized US citizen wife is picked up incorrectly in some immigration sweep.

  8. Bill Jempty says:

    Private bills are very difficult to get done. Just read this story*. I played a small part** in the Hotaru Ferschke saga and I had a long post written about Hotaru but it was accidentally deleted. Ugh. If anyone really cares to read some of my old writings on the subject, do a google search of Wizbang and Hotaru Ferschke. I wrote at Wizbang about Hotaru and at the blog ROK Drop also but it seems my old writings at the latter are no longer available.

    *- Scumbag piece of crap dumbass Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner tried stopping the private bill. He changed his mind and actually complained about some things written about him on the internet. Like the stuff above, which I wrote in Dec 2010, and I have forgotten some of the other nice things I called that douchebag.
    **- As the most prolific blogger on the subject. Over the course of Hotaru’s two year plus struggle to legally immigrate here, and I formed contacts with the Ferschke family and a close friend of theirs. Also I stayed informed with the help of Congressman Jim Duncan’s office. Duncan was one of her leading sponsors on Capitol Hill

  9. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Laws are written, contracts are signed, promises made. Cracks. Gaps. Unforeseen occurrences… Lives are impacted. It happens, most often without any recourse.

    My story:

    My father was an autoworker, UAW. Per contract, if he were to pass away before he retired, then his benefits would go to his surviving family.

    Sadly, many years ago, he passed at the age of 52 (I’m 63, now). When this happened, I reached out to the UAW to request that his benefits would go to my younger brother and sister. One just started college and the other was still in high school. According to the contract, they would get health benefits and their education covered until their completed college.

    Except they did not. Because we were not related to our father.

    Yes, we were his biological offspring, but contractually the benefits flowed to the children via the surviving spouse. And since my mother and father divorced, there was no surviving spouse.

    No spouse, no family, not related, no benefits. QED.

    Needless to say, this was devastating, as we were a no-parent family.

    A few years later on an AA flight, in domestic first, I had a chance to strike up a conversation with a really great guy. Turns out he was Owen Bieber. Without belaboring the point, I asked him about this scenario. He said: the next contract they signed (that followed my father’s death) changed the status of survivors… however the automakers would not address those that were affected in the past (as we were not the only ones).

    Humans are fallible. stuff happens.

  10. Bill Jempty says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Humans are fallible. stuff happens.

    That explains then how I have the Washington Senators in 2nd place at almost the end of July in my Strat-O-Matic replay of the 1962 season. The Nats are 53-45 when in real life they were 38-50. The SOM computer program allows me to use actual lineups and schedules.

    Then blame it on the dice rolling. But who’s rolling the dice….

  11. CSK says:


    The embassy and its staff are regarded as the turf and citizens of whatever country they represent. When I went to the U.S. consulate in Edinburgh to vote, I was a U.S. citizen on U.S. turf.

  12. Bill Jempty says:


    The embassy and its staff are regarded as the turf and citizens of whatever country they represent. When I went to the U.S. consulate in Edinburgh to vote, I was a U.S. citizen on U.S. turf.

    30 years ago if I visited the US consulate or embassy, I could be the only American there and 100 locals all there ahead of me. You don’t have to guess who got taken care of first.

    My filipina wife’s embassy interview before coming to the US I was supposed to be there but a coup attempt happened in the PI and after 3 days in Seoul I had to return home. She went to the embassy on her own after it re-opened. According to her there were tons of Filipinas there, and the lucky ones got hopped to the front of the line because their US citizen spouse was with them. DW did get her visa after a long wait and came to the US about 10 days later. I met her in LA.

  13. Don Round says:

    @Jen:Most employees of embassies are not considered diplomats & they and their families do not get diplomatic immunity from the host country’s laws; only the higher embassy officials get this privilege.

  14. James D Hawkins says:

    Should the point be made as to which hospital the child was born. If it was a U.S. Hospital, the matter of Embassy being part of Iran is mute. I agree with the other person, this appears to be a purely racist move by one or more persons in the U.S. Government office, I would think the U.S. Passport office. Is the USA responsible to refund all the Federal Taxes the man has paid all is natural life.

  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    Can he get his tax money back?

  16. Jen says:

    @CSK: Oh, yes, I know all of that, my parents worked at consulates and embassies. That’s why I spent so much time abroad growing up.

    It’s fairly rare that someone would give birth IN the embassy, however.

  17. Rod says:

    It would seem highly unlikely a foreign diplomat would be unaware of host country citizenship laws, particularly how it relates to diplomatic representatives. Further, dependents of diplomats born aboard are generally granted citizenship by their government – meaning it is highly likely the individual is free to apply for a passport from the country he holds citizenship. There is most likely much more to this story, and it will be interesting to see what the government’s response is to someone that is obviously a long-term overstayer and likely misrepresented (his lack of) US citizenship to US authorities multiple times, because according to Law both offenses requires a life-time immigration ban.

  18. CSK says:


    No, I didn’t mean that; I meant that the newborn of an embassy staffer or spouse would be a citizen of whatever country the embassy or consulate represented.

  19. Lounsbury says:

    @Jen: Persons who have diplomatic status are not eligible (not people working in Embassy, a specific diplomatic status which is not always the case), I had an employee in this category who lost an incorrectly issued US Passport while employeed by me as his parents had diplomatic status but had registered him as citizen.
    status.@CSK: Embassies are not regarded as “turf” of the home country, the land aspect is a misunderstanding, it is a grant of status immunity not extraterritoriality. It is the personal legal status, not territory.

  20. Jen says:


    Persons who have diplomatic status

    So, this brings up another question: to my understanding, not everyone who works at an embassy carries diplomatic status. There’s a whole tier of employees who carry official, but not diplomatic, passports.

    I am guessing this is just imprecise language, and that any foreign citizen assigned to an embassy in the US (and vice-versa) are covered, NOT just those who carry diplomatic status.

    It also opens up a whole other question of those working on behalf of the US government abroad under non-official cover…

  21. Dave says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Probably not. Foreigners (documented or not) pay income taxes all the time. Unless the US also argues he’s been enjoying diplomatic immunity this whole time, and isn’t just a regular “I overstayed my visa” undocumented foreigner, he would’ve had to pay income taxes in the past.

  22. liz says:

    How about Americans who are born on an ARMY base overseas to American military service members. I was born in a US Army Hospital in Germany registered as an American, grew up in the US Army, served and retired from the US NAVY (my DD214 says US Citizen) pay taxes in the US, work for the US Federal Government, just to be told by some moron when trying to get a copy of my birth certificate due to being ID theft and documents including passport being stolen) that I am not an American.

  23. liz says:

    How about the person who is born on an Military Installation in a foreign country to American parents! That country is going to tell them that they are AMERICANS and not a citizen of that country. What is that person suppose to do?
    This is discrimination against people who cannot help where they were born and the parents who are serving their country abroad.

  24. Matt Bernius says:

    [Mod Comment: Apologies to liz, Rod, Dave, and others–your comments got caught in moderation and I just released them]

  25. Jen says:

    @liz: You are an American. Full stop.

    I was born overseas, in a non-US hospital, to US citizen parents serving at an embassy. I have a US State Department official birth certificate. I’m a US citizen.