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.