Are naturalized citizens Trump’s next target?

July 23, 2018

Christopher Baum reports on a horrifying new White House initiative that could revoke people’s citizenship based on supposed errors in their original applications.

THE TRUMP administration has opened a new front in its war on immigrants: stripping naturalized citizens of their hard-won status.

Last month, L. Francis Cissna, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), revealed to the Associated Press (AP) that his agency would be creating a task force to find and denaturalize immigrants who, in the agency’s view, should not have been naturalized in the first place.

According to the AP report, Cissna’s task force would be focused on “cases of immigrants who were ordered deported and are suspected of using fake identities to later get green cards and citizenship through naturalization.”

But the announcement raised immediate concerns that the agency may in fact begin targeting any naturalized citizens the administration deems undesirable, stripping them of their citizenship and expelling them from the country on whatever pretext the government might choose.

A naturalization ceremony
A naturalization ceremony

It’s not hard to see why people are afraid.

FROM THE earliest days of his presidential campaign, Trump has justified his anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies with one baseless myth after another: all immigrants are violent criminals; voter fraud is rampant among communities of color; refugees are terrorists in disguise; asylum-seekers are trying to exploit loopholes in U.S. law to gain access to the country; and much more.

In carrying out this assault, Trump and his minions have done their best to make self-fulfilling prophecies out of the lies they are peddling.

It is simply not true, for instance, that the majority of immigrants are criminals. Numerous studies, in fact, show that the percentage of immigrants who commit crimes is smaller than that of the general population.

But by treating all immigrants as criminals — not just rhetorically but through actual arrests and prosecutions — Trump has created the grounds for a massive expansion of enforcement operations, both at the border and in the interior of the country.

Now, it seems he is eager to add another lie to the list: that deception and fraud are widespread in the naturalization process, and that a significant number of immigrants who have become naturalized citizens never should have been granted that status.

If Trump gets his way, it will only be a matter of time before this lie, too, has generated an industry in pursuit of “offenders” summoned into being by the lie itself. Witch hunts, after all, require witches, even if the hunters have to fabricate them.

Masha Gessen of the New Yorker recounted her own experience applying for citizenship in 1989 to show that the distinction between those who lied on their citizenship applications and those who made innocent mistakes is “fuzzier than one might assume.”

At the time, U.S. law still barred “aliens afflicted with sexual deviation.” While Gessen chose to be open about her homosexuality, she notes that the “rational thing to do...would have been to obfuscate on my citizenship application.” And she writes that the pressures to lie have only grown stronger:

Over the years, the applications for both citizenship and permanent residence have grown ever longer, filling with questions that seem to be designed to be used against the applicant. Question 26 on the green-card application, for example, reads, “Have you EVER committed a crime of any kind (even if you were not arrested, cited, charged with, or tried for that crime)?” (Emphasis in the original.)

The question does not specify whether it refers to a crime under current U.S. law or the laws of the country in which the crime might have been committed. 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 naturalized citizen might look like an outlaw, or a liar.

OF COURSE, prospective citizens don’t just have the repressive and discriminatory laws of other nations to contend with. From the moment they arrive in the U.S., they are subject to a set of rules and regulations designed to make criminals out of them and ensure that even the most minor offenses may result in their expulsion.

These laws place all non-citizens, regardless of legal status, in an especially vulnerable and exploitable position that lasts for many years.

The first step on the path to citizenship is to obtain permanent resident status — itself a costly and difficult process that routinely drags on for years. Once this is achieved, immigrants must wait a further five years (three if they are married to a U.S. citizen) before they can apply for citizenship.

Then, as part of the application process, they must satisfy the authorities that they are a “person of good moral character” — a deliberately vague standard that gives the government considerable latitude in deciding who is “worthy” to become a citizen and who is not.

It’s important to understand the consequences of denial. If an immigrant’s application for citizenship is denied, they will not necessarily lose their permanent resident status, and they may be permitted to re-apply after a certain amount of time. But as the New York Times reported in 2008:

[A] number of grounds for naturalization denial can lead to an order of deportation...In three recent cases in Florida, aspiring citizens thought their green cards entitled them to vote or register to vote before they were sworn in as Americans. When the immigrants reported their elections activities on their applications, not only were their naturalizations rejected, but they were also ordered to leave the country.

Under these circumstances, the pressure to “obfuscate,” as Gessen puts it, is obvious. Even people who have committed only minor offenses may feel compelled to lie, just to be on the safe side. Why take a chance being honest about a shoplifting arrest from seven years ago when even an honest mistake about voter registration may upend your entire existence?

Supporters of U.S. immigration policy might reply, “Don’t commit any crimes and you won’t have that problem.” But this is a country where mass poverty and over-policing lead to a third of Americans being arrested by the time they’re 23. The moral character issues lie not with immigrants who fudge their past on applications, but with the country in which they are applying for citizenship.

THE SEEDS of Cissna’s task force were planted a decade ago. According to a 2016 report from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS):

In 2008, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employee identified 206 aliens who had received final deportation orders and subsequently used a different biographic identity, such as a name and date of birth, to obtain an immigration benefit (e.g., legal permanent resident status or citizenship). These aliens came from two special interest countries and two other countries that shared borders with a special interest country [defined by DHS as being “of concern to the national security of the United States.”]

After further research, in 2009, CBP provided the results of Operation Targeting Groups of Inadmissible Subjects, now referred to as Operation Janus, to DHS. In response, the DHS Counterterrorism Working Group coordinated with multiple DHS components to form a working group to address the problem of aliens from special interest countries receiving immigration benefits after changing their identities and concealing their final deportation orders.

The first denaturalization under Operation Janus did not occur until January 2018, when a New Jersey resident named Baljinder Singh was stripped of his citizenship by a federal judge. Singh now faces deportation.

A Justice Department press release summarized Singh’s case as follows:

Baljinder Singh aka Davinder Singh, 43, a native of India, arrived at San Francisco International Airport on Sept. 25, 1991, without any travel documents or proof of identity. He claimed his name was Davinder Singh. He was placed in exclusion proceedings, but failed to appear for his immigration court hearing and was ordered excluded and deported on January 7, 1992.

Four weeks later, on Feb. 6, 1992, he filed an asylum application under the name Baljinder Singh. He claimed to be an Indian who entered the United States without inspection. Singh abandoned that application [in 1996] after he married a U.S. citizen, who filed a visa petition on his behalf. Singh naturalized under the name Baljinder Singh on July 28, 2006.

The complaint gives Singh’s year of birth as 1975, which means he was, at most, 16 years old when he was apprehended in 1991. Despite the government’s efforts to deport him as a child, Singh found a way to remain in the U.S., and he has lived here for the last 26 years — far longer than he had been alive when he first came to this country.

In all that time, there is no indication that Singh has ever committed even the most trivial of misdemeanors, let alone posed any kind of threat to “national security.”

We can expect Cissna’s task force to continue using the bogeyman of terrorism to target more people like Baljinder Singh — naturalized citizens who have lived peacefully in this country for years, who will now face the threat of losing their citizenship and being torn from their communities and sent “back” to a place that hasn’t been their home for decades, if it ever was.

IN 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Maslenjak v. United States that a false statement can be grounds for denaturalization only if it influenced the government’s decision to grant citizenship. A false statement regarding your height, for instance, would not be sufficient grounds for denaturalization.

The Maslenjak ruling places an important constraint on the government’s effort to strip immigrants of their citizenship, but it’s clearly not enough. It didn’t help Baljinder Singh, whose omissions regarding his use of another name and his prior deportation order were relevant to the government’s decision to grant him citizenship.

And Maslenjak won’t protect people whose misstatements or omissions can be shown to have affected the authorities’ judgment of their “moral character” — putting large number of people who have been longtime law-abiding citizens in danger of losing everything to the xenophobic whims of an openly racist administration.

Like the rest of today’s anti-immigrant attacks, however, the threat to naturalized citizens didn’t start with Trump. As we have seen, Operation Janus began a decade ago, and U.S. immigration law has been biased toward criminalizing immigrants for far longer than that.

As long as we have a legal framework that holds immigrants to a “good moral character” standard not applied to natural-born citizens, people will be driven to “obfuscate” on their green card and citizenship applications.

And as long as people can be deported for merely trying to enter the country — and face the possibility of years in prison if they are caught again — immigrants who simply want a better life for themselves and their loved ones will feel obliged to falsify their identities to evade the clutches of the vast and fearsome deportation machine.

The punitive system, therefore, actually generates precisely the “material falsehoods” that those in power then try to characterize as further evidence of immigrant “criminality.”

By focusing on immigrants who have successfully navigated the years-long process of attaining first permanent residency and then citizenship, all the while maintaining the “good moral character” that we require of immigrants — but evidently not of, say, our president — this latest attack should make plain that no immigrant, regardless of their legal status, is safe.

It’s time to abandon once and for all the bogus categories of “good” and “bad” immigrants that “bipartisan immigrant reform” has relied on to determine which people should get a path to citizenship and which should get a prison cell.

Trump is going after everyone, and our response must be to demand full equality for everyone — regardless of where they come from or what paperwork they are able to provide.

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