In June, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that a newly established office would investigate naturalized Americans suspected of lying on their citizenship applications. USCIS director L. Francis Cissna said the probes would target “a few thousand” people, with the aim of revoking citizenship from those who did, in fact, lie. This news stoked fears that President Trump’s already-restrictive immigration rules were taking an authoritarian turn.
This week, an early target emerged: According to the Miami Herald, the Department of Justice is suing to strip citizenship from a grandmother in Miami because she did not disclose her minor role in a financial crime in her naturalization application. She immigrated legally, suffers from a rare kidney disease, and even cooperated with the FBI when they investigated the crime. Still, after living and working for decades in the United States, she is facing deportation.
There is no denying that the Trump administration’s policies are often racist, cruel, and politically motivated. But investigating fraud isn’t the same thing as expelling entire groups, like when the Nazis denaturalized German Jews en masse in the early 1930s. Nor can this initiative be solely attributed to Trump: An earlier version of the program known as Operation Janus began during the Obama administration, and identified many of the cases the current program will examine.
Still, there is something decidedly unsettling about the timing of the new announcement. Why did the government choose, in the middle of a nationwide outcry over family separations at the border, to declare its interest in a trivial amount of naturalization fraud?
To understand what might be going on, we need to put aside the Nazi references and turn to America’s own history. Denaturalization—the legal procedure for revoking and nullifying citizenship—was for decades a relatively common practice in the United States. Unlike totalitarian versions of this policy, which were politically and ethnically defined, denaturalization in America hinged on legal interpretations of fraud: From the use of naturalization as a tool to rig election turnout in the late 19th century, to the current interest in the use of fake names and other falsehoods on citizenship applications.
Denaturalization first became a legal possibility in the United States with the passage of the 1906 Nationalization Act. Section 15 of this piece of legislation gave US attorneys the authority to initiate proceedings “for the purpose of setting aside and canceling the certificate of citizenship on the ground of fraud or on the ground that such certificate of citizenship was illegally procured.” The original purpose of the denaturalization clause was to clean up a naturalization process that had been wildly inconsistent across state and federal courts. Once introduced, though, it quickly opened the gates for the interpretation of fraud to support exclusionary and often racist investigations.
The 1907 Expatriation Act used the denaturalization clause to rid the populace of certain unwanted individuals who were targeted for their ethnic background, their gender, and their political views. Between 1907 and 1931, the clause was used to strip citizenship from American women who married foreigners. It was also used by the government to target individuals on the basis of their political opinions, which is what happened, most notably, to the anarchist Emma Goldman: Her US citizenship was deemed invalid because her ex-husband, who sponsored her, had not met the full residence requirement before naturalizing himself. Further, the government even used the clause to allow the denaturalization of “un-American” races, specifically Asians.
This history, which historian Patrick Weil eloquently narrates in his 2012 book, The Sovereign Citizen, shows us that denaturalization fraud was for decades at the center of racist and xenophobic immigration policy in the United States. However, in the early 1940s, the Supreme Court began to issue decisions to protect naturalized citizens, culminating in a landmark 1967 decision, Afroyim v. Rusk, that ruled that all American citizens, whether native-born or naturalized, could not be deprived of their citizenship involuntarily.
This decision does not mean that today naturalized citizens can never lose their citizenship. A naturalized citizen of the United States can be denaturalized on the grounds that they falsify or conceal relevant facts, refuse to testify before Congress, are proven a member of subversive organization (such as the Nazi Party or Al Qaeda), or because of a dishonorable discharge. As recently as last year, an Indian immigrant named Baljinder Singh was stripped of his US citizenship because he used a false name to apply for naturalization while he was wanted for deportation. And though litigation is pending, the Associated Press just reported the discharge of approximately 40 immigrants from the army—dismissals that could affect their attempts to become citizens down the line.
It remains to be seen to what extent the government will be able to substantially expand what counts as naturalization fraud, and how the courts will handle the issue. Last June, in Maslenjak v. The United States, the Supreme Court heard the case of an ethnic Serbian woman who fled Bosnia for the United States during the Balkan wars in 1998. The government argued that Maslenjak could be denaturalized because she lied on her citizenship application about her husband’s involvement in the Bosnian army; Maslenjak countered that she had indeed lied, but that the lie was immaterial and had no bearing on the decision related to her naturalization.
In a 9-0 decision, the Court supported her argument, sending the case back down for resolution in a lower federal court. “Under the Government’s reading,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, “a lie told in the naturalization process—even out of embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy—would always provide a basis for rescinding citizenship. The Government could thus take away on one day what it was required to give the day before.”
In our unsettled times, Americans are right to instinctively worry about the government’s task force on denaturalization fraud. For now, though, the law is on the side of the immigrants, so the government is unlikely to win denaturalization cases in the courts; even a more conservative Supreme Court, after the replacement of Justice Kennedy, is unlikely to change this calculus.
What we should worry about immediately is what sort of message the government is sending. Even if USCIS’s new office closes up shop after handling a few thousand cases of clear-cut lying, cheating, and fraud, the threat of denaturalization now hangs over the heads of America’s immigrant population, and its effects will be far-reaching and long-standing. This is precisely why the government made its announcement in the middle of a public outcry over immigration policy: to ratchet up fear as an indirect means of border control.
Fear, unlike a border wall or the travel ban, is inexpensive, and does not have to be passed through Congress or the courts. Fear also threads through people fast, and spreads quickly, especially online. After the immigration agency’s announcement, many naturalized citizens were left questioning the validity of an immigration status they assumed would always be safe. Many others, afraid of being targeted or tripped up in a lie, may now never pursue naturalization at all, even if they are eligible.
This is why comparisons to the Third Reich fall short. Not only do they belie America’s own history with denaturalization, they also let fear control the behavior of naturalized Americans—and future citizens, too. Americans, regardless of where they were born, should remember that their citizenship cannot be revoked on a dime. The real lie is that they were ever made to feel otherwise.