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Denaturalization: Can you be Denaturalized?

The Trump Administration announced a new initiative in its war on immigration: a “denaturalization task force" targeting naturalized citizens.

In June, US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director L. Francis Cissna announced that he was launching a team of investigators to complete the work of “Operation Janus,” a decade-old government effort to identify people who’d gotten citizenship under false pretenses, with the goal to strip them of their citizenship.

The taskforce, and the Administration's announcement, might open up a pandora's box last seen during the Red Scare.

Under what circumstances can the US government take away citizenship?

The government can only revoke citizenship under one condition - if it can prove that the citizenship was obtained illegally. This might either have happened because the person in question didn't actually meet the requirements of citizenship and there was some government error; or if the person lied or concealed something during the application process that was relevant or might have precluded him or her from being naturalized in the first place.

Does denaturalization automatically end in deportation?

When the Department of Justice becomes aware that a person became a naturalized citizen under false pretenses, it can take that person to court to challenge their citizenship. The government cannot denaturalize anyone without the approval of a judge.

A person can't be denaturalized for a typographical error, lying, or even lying by omission on his or her citizenship application. Only a “material" lie is considered grounds for denaturalization.

In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the government in a denaturalization case, Maslenjak v. United States, with the justices stating in both the oral arguments and written decision that they were "extremely concerned that the government was trying to over-broadly define what counted as a material lie."

The courts ensued that denaturalization is only meant to rescind citizenship "that never should have been granted to begin with."

If the government does win its case, however, then the immigrant goes back to being a green card holder, or legal permanent resident, rather than a US citizen. He or she is not immediately earmarked, or eligible for deportation, unless it is subsequently proven that he or she violated the status of his or her residency.

While it is not grounds for immediate deportation, denaturalization does take away the protections against deportation that citizenship affords, leaving the immigrant vulnerable to the ever changing field of immigration policies once again.

History of Denaturalization

Denaturalization is not a new policy. Prior to 1941, denaturalization could be a consequence of political views that conflicted with the majority, as was the case with Emma Goldman, who was famously denaturalized and deported during WWI for "espousing pacifism in wartime."

People were also denaturalized for being multicultural or internationally minded. Both naturalized and native born citizens who voted in foreign elections, served in foreign armed forces or married non-citizens were apt to be stripped of their US citizenship. Prior to 1952, naturalized citizens who were later found to not be 100% caucasian could be denaturalized, as naturalization was limited to whites only prior to that year.

It wasn't until the 1967 Supreme Court case, Afroyim v. Rusk, that denaturalization began to be curtailed. The case reversed the denaturalization of a Polish-born man, who was denaturalized after registering to vote in Israel. The case ruled that individual citizens, not the government, had sovereignty over their own citizenship - it was not a privilege that could be revoked for "behaving in an un-American manner."

That meant that the only reason that the government could take away citizenship is if the person was not actually qualified to be a citizen at the time his or her petition was approved, or if he or she were found out to have lied during the application process.

Since that time, denaturalization has always been a tool to rectify fraudulent citizenship cases. However, the Trump Administration's denaturalization task force is the first time that the government has tried to search out these cases since McCarthy's Red Scare.

Columbia University history professor, Mae Ngai, recounted the history in an interview with NPR.

"The last time the federal government tried to denaturalize citizens was during the McCarthy period. And they went after people who they were accusing of being Communists who were naturalized citizens. And they took away their citizenship and deported them. It wasn't that many people because, actually, it's not that easy to do. But that was the last time that there was a concerted effort. So it's been...almost 75 years Since the government has tried to do it," explained Ngai.

"And I think most people would say that the Red Scare, or the McCarthy period, was not the nation's proudest moment."

Why are they doing it now?

The denaturalization task force is the next phase of “Operation Janus," an investigation through immigration records that dates back to the Bush era.

Operation Janus started when someone realized that a few hundred people had become naturalized citizens, even though they had criminal records or deportation orders that should have barred them from it, thanks to missing digital fingerprint files. The government set out to digitize the missing fingerprints and check past naturalization records to see who else had fallen through the cracks, but ran out of funds for the project.

In 2016, the government started to work on the rest of the 315,000 missing fingerprint records, filing three civil denaturalization suits in 2017.

Then, the Director of the USCIS announced that he was hiring a team of attorneys specifically tasked with investigating the remaining Operation Janus cases.

“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 told the Associated Press.

Why does it matter?

It's difficult to imagine this Administration stopping with 315,000 fingerprint records. Once they've finished with the Janus cases, it's believable to think that they'll repurpose the office to investigate other potential denaturalization cases, rather than just disband it.

While there are legal constraints that will most likely keep denaturalization from spiraling out of control, the very existence of a denaturalization task force creates a sense of discomfort and vulnerability amongst naturalized citizens, who previously felt that their place in the country was finally secure.

Many view the Trump Administration’s denaturalization agenda as another way to inspire fear and create an unwelcome climate in order to deter immigration hopefuls.

“The creation of the task force itself is undoing the naturalization of the more than twenty million naturalized citizens in the American population by taking away their assumption of permanence,” wrote author Masha Gessen in a widely circulated New Yorker column. “All of them — all of us — are second-class citizens now.”