The Trump administration is employing a new weapon in its war on immigrants: de-naturalization.
Yes, that’s a real word. It’s exactly what it sounds like—a process in which a naturalized citizen is stripped of his or her citizenship. In June 2018, Trump’s director of U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services [USCIS] issued a policy memo outlining his plan to ramp up efforts to revoke American citizenship from people whose applications may contain irregularities. The plan is to examine thousands of old fingerprint records and files “to determine whether foreigners made false or fraudulent statements in their attempts to obtain legal residency in the United States.”
To be fair, Trump did not invent de-naturalization. It’s been on the books for decades. And, indeed, there’s a legitimate government reason to be able to revoke citizenship from people who got in using, for example, false identities in order to avoid deportation and claim a green card. [Early on, de-naturalization procedures targeted actual post World War II Nazis and suspected war criminals trying to escape prosecution under assumed identities.]
But, for the most part, de-naturalization has been a rare occurrence. The Justice Department has filed an estimated 300 civil de-naturalization cases since 1990. In contrast, USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna has said that he hopes to identify and de-naturalize several thousand.
Undoubtedly, in his quest to purge America of immigrants, whom he has called “invaders” and “infesters”—and in his need to boast about being biggest and most powerful—Trump will gleefully seize upon this policy and push USCIS to be the harshest enforcer and to beat all of the old numbers. And, judging from Cissna’s own announcements, we’re already moving in the direction of bigger and badder: USCIS is reportedly hiring several dozen lawyers and immigration officers to review cases of suspected fraud.
Identifying targets for de-naturalization
According to USCIS officials and documents reviewed by The Washington Post, Homeland Security investigators are digitizing fingerprints collected in the 1990s and comparing them to more recent prints provided by foreigners who apply for legal residency and American citizenship. If decades-old fingerprints gathered during a deportation matches those of someone who did not disclose that deportation on their naturalization application or used a different name, that individual could be targeted by a new Los Angeles-based investigative division. Violators will be referred to federal courts where they can be stripped of citizenship and potentially deported.
According to the latest USCIS data, 2,536 naturalization cases have prompted an in-depth review so far, and of those, 95 cases have been referred to the Justice Department. Those numbers are expected to rise as additional fingerprints are digitized by ICE, but only an immigration judge – not USCIS – has the authority to revoke citizenship.
How de-naturalization works
In a recent article in the Intercept, a Texas immigration attorney explained that de-naturalization can take two forms: civil and criminal:
Criminal de-naturalization is usually reserved for those who committed fraud to obtain citizenship for criminal activity — crimes involving terror, drugs, and the like — and carry jail terms of up to 25 years. Civil de-naturalization is based on a lower standard of proof and doesn’t result in incarceration. “They’re different methods,” said Curtright, who added that he had noticed that the government pursuing more civil cases in recent months.
…Civil cases often end with the defendant giving in against the power of the federal government. Contesting the cases can cause a defendant to rack up tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars of legal bills — forcing those without means to capitulate early in the legal process. The rich and powerful hardly ever get de-naturalized.
So, as Trump does everything he can to discourage immigration of all sorts, including punishing people legitimately seeking asylum, and kidnapping and jailing their children, this new emphasis on de-naturalization is a perfect fit. It’s a back-door way to expand upon the harsh policies at the border and broader policies to keep people from even trying to get in. Taken to the extreme—a distinct possibility given the Trump administration’s proven record of cruelty—de-naturalization “has the potential to be used as a means of intimidation and to find small discrepancies or errors in an individual’s naturalization paperwork.” The Trump administration says it does not plan on pursuing deportations based on technicalities, but this is also an administration that is savagely separating families at the border as a form of deterrence to would-be undocumented immigrants
In a much broader sense, writes Masha Gessen, in The New Yorker: entitled ,”In America, Naturalized Citizens No Longer Have an Assumption of Permanence:”
… the creation of the task force itself is undoing the naturalization of the more than twenty million naturalized citizens in the American population by taking away their assumption of permanence. All of them—all of us—are second-class citizens now.