Commentary Law and Policy

Why We’re Fighting Donald Trump’s Denaturalization Task Force

Nimra Azmi & Sirine Shebaya

To date, the administration has provided minimal information to the public about its actions and in particular, how and why cases are identified and selected for denaturalization proceedings. A lawsuit Muslim Advocates filed this week seeks to change that.

Read more Rewire.News coverage of Operation Janus here.

Quietly and with little fanfare, the Trump administration has embarked on a systematic, interagency effort over the past several months to denaturalize or strip away citizenship from naturalized U.S. citizens.

For more than 70 years, the federal government has pursued denaturalization infrequently and typically in only the most extreme cases, against individuals involved in the Holocaust, convicted of genocide, or other heinous crimes. But recently, that has changed.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) oversaw Operation Janus, a coordinated effort with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), through which the agencies reviewed the files of hundreds of thousands of naturalized citizens to ferret out if any had misled the government during their naturalization process. Through that effort, DHS identified 315,000 cases where fingerprint data was missing from the centralized digital fingerprint repository. To date, only a minuscule number of these cases has been referred to DOJ for prosecution. However, the Trump administration has intensified these efforts. In January 2018, DOJ announced that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a component of DHS, intended to refer 1,600 potential denaturalization cases to DOJ for criminal prosecution. In June, USCIS stated that it would be creating a new office for the sole purpose of reviewing and referring denaturalization cases to DOJ for prosecution.

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Despite the increased attention and resources devoted to systematic denaturalization under the Trump administration, the administration has provided minimal information to the public about its actions and in particular, how and why cases are identified and selected for denaturalization proceedings. A lawsuit we filed Thursday on behalf of our organization, Muslim Advocates, seeks to change that.

The case, filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C., arises out of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that Muslim Advocates submitted to federal agencies, including DOJ and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a component of DHS, at the beginning of the year. Muslim Advocates’ request sought documents concerning how cases were selected for denaturalization, the goals of the denaturalization effort, and nonidentifying information reflecting countries of origin and/or ethnicities of individuals the federal government has identified as candidates for denaturalization. To date and in violation of FOIA, neither ICE nor DOJ have released a single document in response to Muslim Advocates’ request.

The little that is known about the Trump administration’s actions is alarming. To date, the vast majority of those targeted for denaturalization proceedings have hailed from South Asia, Africa, and South America, based on our review of DOJ press releases. Moreover, the government has already successfully rendered several naturalized citizens of IndianBangladeshi, and Haitian origin noncitizens and subject them to deportation. In one denaturalization proceeding, a Miami grandmother who immigrated from Peru almost 30 years ago was targeted for denaturalization. In another, a mother of four and asylum seeker from Haiti was sentenced to jail and deportation.

The stories that have emerged about the subjects of these denaturalization cases place denaturalization as part of this administration’s broader pattern of tearing apart immigrant families, a pattern that has been at play in the Muslim ban and with family separation at the border. The individuals who are targeted for denaturalization have longstanding ties to the United States—families, jobs, and communities—and have lived for years as Americans. In that, they are like the millions of other naturalized citizens who have taken the promise of U.S. citizenship on its face and set down roots, built families, invested in their communities, and loved the country as home.

The administration’s message to immigrants and naturalized citizens is clear: Your Americanness is uncertain and your naturalized citizenship is second-class. When read in concert with the Muslim ban and family separation at the border, the message is crystallized: You and your families are not wanted here.

Throughout our nation’s history, the concerted use of denaturalization proceedings—as the Trump administration is currently undertaking—has been a method of scapegoating and stigmatizing entire communities simply because of their nationality. The last time the U.S. government pursued denaturalization at anything nearing this scale was during the Red Scare when suspicion against communism led to targeting those accused of communist ties for denaturalization. Before the Red Scare, DOJ targeted German Americans for denaturalization during World War II and Indian Americans following the Supreme Court’s 1923 decision in United States v. Thind, which held that Indians were ineligible for citizenship because of their race. Each of these instances reflects shameful moments in U.S. history, where the government permitted fear and racism to guide policy and disrupt lives and families.

Naturalized citizenship is not a second-class citizenship. This has long been the United States’ promise to its approximately 20 million naturalized citizens and their families. Yet, the federal government’s recent systematic denaturalization efforts suggest that it is aiming to create two tiers of citizenship and upend our system entirely—and do so as quietly as possible. In filing suit against DOJ and ICE this week, Muslim Advocates is not allowing the government to strip away citizenship, disrupt lives, and create an apartheid system of citizenship in secret.

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