In the late 1910s, the US government wanted to rid itself of Emma Goldman. The Russian immigrant had been written up on obscenity charges for advocating birth control, and imprisoned for protesting the draft during World War I. The government also alleged she had been involved in an assassination attempt of a Carnegie Steel tycoon. And the anarchist had made it clear her activism wasn’t about to end.
Getting rid of immigrants was not an entirely new project even then. The first thing the US government did was to rummage around into Goldman’s past, only to be disappointed when they discovered that she had legally become a US citizen through marriage. Not to be deterred, they turned their attentions to her ex-husband’s file, and here they struck gold, discovering that he had been 17, and therefore underage, when he was naturalized. Armed with this, they began denaturalization proceedings against Goldman. If she could be stripped of her citizenship, she could be deported, and on December 21, 1919, the government got what it wanted. Goldman and 248 other alleged political subversives were sent to Soviet Russia aboard the USS Buford, a former warship that the media nicknamed the Soviet Ark.
Even after the red scare, the US government kept denaturalizing Americans; 70,000 US citizens accidentally lost their citizenship in 1946 when they voted in Canadian elections, not knowing that casting their ballots would cost them their US passports. And during World War II, the United States took away citizenship from several thousand Americans because they had lived abroad for too long.
In our own age of resurrected xenophobia, many of these old tools are being dug out, polished, and sharpened again, ready to cut off those whom the US government does not wish to have in the country. But instead of going after anarchists and expats, the government is seeking to expel the country’s nonwhite immigrants. Twin operations have been set up to accomplish this: Operation Janus, which is housed at an office in Los Angeles and had plans to refer 1,600 cases for prosecution and possible denaturalization, and Operation Second Look, which will review hundreds of thousands of petitions to locate the tiniest of discrepancies.
The government has already begun this sordid task. Operation Janus, which started under the Obama administration, has been kicked into high gear under Trump. This January a judge revoked the citizenship of Baljinder Singh. The Trump administration looking to slice and dice the country along the lines of white nativism hit upon a jackpot; in a memo dated September 2016, Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General announced that, because of some past oversight, nearly 148,000 fingerprints of deported and criminal aliens had not been uploaded into the system and were missing. The consequence, according to the government calculation, was that 858 individuals may have been granted citizenship despite the possibility that they may have committed crimes of moral turpitude.
In Baljinder Singh’s case, the problem lay in a more than 25-year-old lie. He had been unmade an American citizen because he had the temerity to use a false name when he entered the country in 1991. The USCIS is also in the process of denaturalizing two other men, Parvez Manzoor Khan and Rashid Mahmood, both of whom had been citizens for over a decade for similarly minor issues in their applications.
In June of this year, Francis Cissna—a thin-lipped man with wire-framed glasses who heads United States Citizenship and Immigration Services—told the press that his agency was hiring lawyers who would investigate fraudulent cases of misbegotten citizenship and then file denaturalization cases through the Department of Justice. In some cases, criminal charges of fraud would also be filed. “We finally have a process in place to get to the bottom of all these bad cases and start denaturalizing people who should not have been naturalized in the first place,” Cissna said. “What we’re looking at, when you boil it all down, is potentially a few thousand cases.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has also applied for an additional $207.6 million so that it can hire another 300 agents—some of whom will comb through the already vetted and approved naturalization applications to locate fraud in marriage, visa, residency, and other areas.
Throughout most of the post–World War II period, denaturalization has been a rarely used tool. The scouring of records in search of something wrong, the budget increases, and addition of agents suggest a weaponization of what had until recently been a loose and limp legislative provision.
Denaturalization can proceed via civil or criminal proceedings but must, unlike most immigration proceedings, take place in immigration court. In order to revoke a person’s citizenship, the government must prove one of two things: that the person was never statutorily eligible for citizenship and therefore procured citizenship under false pretenses (even if they did not know they were doing this), or that the person procured citizenship by concealing a material fact or by willful misrepresentation.
Most denaturalization cases will likely be civil proceedings, for the simple reason that they have a lower burden of proof. This is not a welcome fact. Unlike the criminal statute, which limits denaturalization proceedings under its ambit to 10 years after citizenship was granted, the civil proceedings have no statute of limitations. In effect, this means that even those who have lived in the United States for decades are equally and eternally vulnerable to investigation and possible removal.
Living through the scrum of provisions and proceedings will be an ordeal for any naturalized citizen that the Trump administration chooses to target. The reasons for this are not in the statute but are evident to anyone who is familiar with immigration law. First, because civil proceedings can be initiated at the agency level within the USCIS, millions of naturalized citizens could be investigated without their knowledge. The constitutional safeguards against search and seizure and the provision of counsel do not apply. This means poor naturalized citizens could be deported without ever being represented by an immigration attorney.
Second, while statute and court precedent lay out what must be proven to denaturalize a citizen, there is no stipulation regarding conditions that must be met to trigger an investigation. The absence of such a provision means that the government is free to investigate any naturalized citizen in bad faith or with the knowledge that the inquiry is unlikely to result in denaturalization. Because these are civil proceedings, even those naturalized citizens who will eventually be found to have no fraudulent elements in their petitions will have to bear their own attorney costs (if they have the ability to retain an attorney). Merely being investigated and defending oneself against one of these actions, regardless of the outcome, could cause significant financial and emotional stress.
Before the Trump presidency, denaturalization proceedings averaged just 22 a year. In the Maslenjak v. United States case, prosecution began when Divna Maslenjak, an ethnic Serb, was found to have lied on her refugee-status paperwork when she said that she and her family feared reprisals from Bosnian Serb militias because her husband had refused to be conscripted during the war. Her husband was in fact an officer in a Serbian military unit and guilty of human-rights offenses. Despite significant evidence exposing Maslenjak’s lie, Justice Elena Kagan insisted in 2017 that it was essential for the government to prove that the underlying false statement was instrumental in the acquisition of citizenship. In a case tried just two years before Maslenjak, citizenship rights were taken away from Michael Karkoc, a Nazi war criminal who had used deceptive means to naturalize and had lived in Minnesota for decades. Both of these cases illustrate how denaturalization was used in the past: It was a means of adhering to human-rights principles, of not providing refuge to human-rights abusers.
The Trump administration’s push to pursue denaturalization should be considered as one piece of the jigsaw that is closing off the United States to nonwhite individuals. Beginning with the Muslim ban, now upheld by the Supreme Court, extending to the vastly sped up ICE raids in areas with large Latino populations, to the detention and separation of asylum-seeking families at the border, these bits and pieces come together to reveal a worldview that accords with white nationalism.
Add to this denaturalization proceedings and you have a complete picture of a nation transforming itself from one that welcomed immigrants to one that sees immigrants as fraudsters, conniving to cheat and lie to get into the country. The Trump administration is already referring cases to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. So far just about all of the defendants have been Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Haitian, South American, or African. The unwanted anarchists of old have thus been replaced by the racial minorities of today. For the Trump administration, the only task that remains is creating enough of a sham process to make their exclusion look legitimate.