Donald Trump’s “denaturalisation task force” is on a mission to rescind US citizenship

For decades, the US government has rescinded citizenship only in exceptional circumstances. Now, this is changing.

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Writing in the Washington Post this week, Michael Anton, a former national security official in the Trump administration, proposed that American citizenship should no longer be a birthright. Alternating between dull (and misleading) legalese and glaring xenophobia, he argued that the US is allowing citizenship to be “debased” and dismissed as “an absurdity” the notion that anyone born in the US can be American. Trump should issue “an executive order to specify that the children of noncitizens are not citizens,” he advised.

Under what warped and racist worldview does the child of an immigrant threaten to “debase” citizenship, one wonders. The answer gives an indication of the spirit of Anton’s suggestion that the insecurity of being undocumented should be inherited through the generations, that babies born to parents who have lived in the US for decades should be treated unequally before the law.

“Birthright citizenship was a mistake whose time has gone,” he concludes, ominously and inelegantly. He gestures to an uncomfortable truth, however. Ending birthright citizenship would radically overhaul what it means to be American, but such a move would be fully in keeping with the Trump administration’s efforts to make citizenship more exclusionary, by distinguishing between “real” Americans, whose rights are unassailable, and foreign-born Americans whose credentials can always be called into question.

In January, a court in New Jersey stripped an Indian-born man of his US citizenship after government lawyers argued that he had lied on his naturalisation form. It was the first denaturalisation to occur as part of a government operation to digitise and review fingerprint records to identify people who may have fraudulently applied for US citizenship, and it offered a disturbing insight into the Trump administration’s plans to denaturalise “thousands” of Americans.

For decades, the US government has rescinded the citizenship of naturalised Americans only in exceptional circumstances, such as if they are guilty of war crimes. Now, this is changing and the consequences could be horrifying.

According to the court judgement, the Indian man first arrived in the US in 1991 with no identity documents and applied for asylum, through a Punjabi interpreter, under the name Davinder Singh. When he later failed to appear in court, a judge rejected his asylum application and ordered him to be deported in absentia in January 1992.

The following month, however, he requested asylum again using a different name, Baljinder Singh. While that request was being processed, he married an American citizen, which allowed him to apply for permanent residency and eventually US citizenship. He did not disclose that he had applied for asylum before and been rejected.

There are several odd and unsettling aspects to this case. First, the court judgement notes that Singh did not respond to the initial complaint filed by the US government in September 2017 and did not oppose the motion to denaturalise him.

“There’s a real possibility that he doesn’t know that he got denaturalised,” Matthew Hoppock, an immigration lawyer specialising in denaturalisation, told me. He suggested that it was possible Singh could have been travelling and never received the government notice, or even, given that his name is not uncommon, that the wrong person was served.

The Department of Justice declined to comment when asked if they could confirm that Singh indeed received the complaint, or knows that he is no longer a US citizen.

The other odd and unsettling aspect to this case is that Singh appears to have been targeted for denaturalisation almost at random. Hoppock has recorded 305 denaturalisations since 1990, almost all of them against war criminals, human rights abusers and people accused of serious crimes.

Singh is the first person to be denaturalised under Operation Janus, an initiative to digitize fingerprints taken during naturalisation and other immigration proceedings and check for duplicates that could indicate fraud. A 2016 report by the Office of the Inspector General notes that Operation Janus had identified 858 US citizens who appear to have been ordered to be deported and then successfully applied for naturalisation under a different name and without disclosing their initial deportation order.

The report indicated that the government would prioritise investigating the individuals within this group who hold positions of public trust or who have security clearances. Operation Janus identified two potential candidates for denaturalisation who worked in domestic airports, for example, and who could pose a security risk.

Singh’s profession is not mentioned in the court documents or the press release regarding his denaturalisation. At the same time as it filed the initial complaint against Singh that led to his denaturalisation, the justice department filed similar complaints against two men who were originally from Pakistan. (Their cases are still pending.) Why were these three men singled out for denaturalisation first? When asked, USCIS did not clarify how it chooses which cases to investigate first.

But undoubtedly the agency is aware of the message this denaturalisation sends: there is no lie too small or ancient to escape government detection. Unless you were born in the US, your citizenship will always be subject to scrutiny.

In June, the director for US Citizenship and Immigration Services told the Associated Press this his agency had opened a new office and hired dozens of lawyers and immigration officers to review potentially fraudulent applications for US citizenship and refer them for denaturalisation. The office says it has identified over 2,500 naturalisation cases that require an in-depth review, and that 95 of those cases have now been referred to the Department of Justice for civil denaturalisation. These numbers are expected to increase as the government continues reviewing and digitising hundreds of thousands of fingerprint records.

“Nobody who obtained US citizenship by deliberately assuming a false identity will be surprised to learn they are being referred to the justice department for denaturalisation proceedings,” Michael Bars, a spokesman for USCIS, told me by email. “Those who obtained the great privilege of citizenship through deliberate and intentional acts of fraud have cheated the system in order to undermine legitimate, law-abiding applicants seeking greater opportunity, prosperity, and security.”

In fact, efforts to increase denaturalisations may directly harm “legitimate, law-abiding applicants”. The USCIS’s office is funded by the fees immigrants pay when they are applying for things like work permits, residence cards, or naturalisation. An individual who pays $410 to apply for employment authorisation may expect this fee covers the administrative costs of adjudicating their request promptly. But it will also be funding the government’s efforts to denaturalise US citizens.

It seems likely that if more of these funds are spent on denaturalisation, immigrants will end up waiting longer for things like work authorisation or permanent residency cards. (USCIS says processing times will not be slowed down.) Hoppock suggests it may not even be legal to spend immigration fees on anything other than adjudicating claims, but this would be difficult to challenge in courts.

The symbolism is important too. An office tasked with helping immigrants access benefits is now the agency spearheading the effort to investigate foreign-born Americans and erode the reassurance of permanence once offered by US citizenship.

“The government may have a legitimate concern with people that just straight up made a brand-new name, got a fake passport and started over. Perhaps they have a good point about denaturalising some of the people. But there are going to be people in that group where there is a genuine mistake,” said Hoppock. He said in the past week three people had called him, terrified that they may be targeted for denaturalisation. If the government intends to sow fear among foreign-born Americans, it is succeeding.

The scope for making a mistake in an application is broad. Asylum applicants may receive bad legal advice, they may move frequently and therefore may not always receive communication regarding their cases, including deportation orders. People may be inconsistent about using their middle name on paperwork, or even about how they spell their name if their language does not use a Roman alphabet. For example, one of the complaints filed in September 2017 is against a Pakistani man accused of using two names: Rashid Mahmood and Rashid Mehmood. There is no spelling difference in Urdu between Mahmood and Mehmood, it is the same name. (Rashid Mahmood is also accused of lying about his date of birth and membership of a Pakistani political party.) The government might struggle to win a case to denaturalise someone over a typo, but that will not assuage the fear.

“The creation of the task force itself is undoing the naturalisation of the more than twenty million naturalised citizens in the American population by taking away their assumption of permanence. All of them – all of us – are second-class citizens now,” writes Masha Gessen in the New Yorker. She describes filling out her naturalisation form aged 14 and having to disclose that she is gay, and affirm that she has never committed any crime. “In the Soviet Union of my youth, it was illegal to possess foreign currency or to spend the night anywhere you were not registered to live. In more than seventy countries, same-sex sexual activity is still illegal. On closer inspection, just about every naturalised citizen might look like an outlaw, or a liar,” she writes.

“People will be made to live in fear,” Hoppock told me. “I think that’s at least part of what the intention is… they are going to overboard and the fear that creates not just in the immigrant community, but in the recent naturalised community, is problematic. The United States hasn’t experienced that in a generation.”

Sophie McBain is a special correspondent at the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor. 

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