The Trump administration's unquenchable thirst to slam immigrants—unauthorized but also, as I wrote recently, authorized— has now taken an even more ominous turn. It is training its sights on a group largely considered sacrosanct: naturalized citizens.
It is reviving a post-9/11 counter-terrorism program called Operation Janus that was disbanded in 2016. The program's purpose was to stop terrorists from slipping through the cracks in the naturalization process. But the Trump administration is using it to denaturalize citizens who've been living in the United States for decades, are married to American citizens, and have no criminal history.
Last September, the administration filed three complaints in federal courts to denaturalize three men who it alleged had obtained naturalization through "fraud." All three were South Asians—two from Pakistan and one from India. They had come to the United States without proper papers, were ordered deported but obtained citizenship under different names after marrying American citizens. The rap against all of them is that they did not reveal their other names on their citizenship application or that they had been ordered deported.
The administration apparently doesn't care that none of this would have necessarily nullified their citizenship petition. A deported person can still obtain citizenship if an American citizen marries him or her, as was the case in all these three instances. And the Supreme Court last year unanimously ruled in Maslenjak vs. United States that merely withholding information (such as past names) or even lying is not sufficient grounds to denaturalize someone. The falsehood has to be material to the citizenship application. (Maslenjak involved a Bosnian-Serbian woman who obtained citizenship after lying to immigration authorities about her husband's role in assisting the Serbian army's 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.) Anything less, it noted, would open "the door to a world of disquieting consequences," in which a lie "would always provide a basis for rescinding citizenship," even if the lie merely resulted from "embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy."
For example, notes The New Yorker's Masha Green, when he applied for his citizenship in 1989, immigration law banned "aliens afflicted with sexual deviation," or those suffering from "psychopathic personality," from entry to the United States. And when he came to this country as a gay fourteen-year-old in 1981, he was aware of his "sexual deviation." Technically that meant that he should not have entered. But he did and he decided to append a letter to his citizenship application, informing the Immigration and Naturalization Service that he had done so. He still got his citizenship. But many others in his situation might have chosen not to fess up because their families didn't know or they were ashamed or because that might indeed jeopardize their application even though it shouldn't.
Still, one court has acquiesced to the Trump administration's request to strip the citizenship of the man from India, Baljinder Singh. Singh is a Sikh who came to the United States in 1991 under the name of Davinder Singh a few years after India's ruling regime presided over a Sikh pogrom. He was ordered deported after he failed to show up for an immigration hearing. However, he subsequently filed for asylum but abandoned his application when he married an American woman who sponsored him and put him on the path to citizenship.
The court, at the administration's behest, has downgraded his status to that of a permanent resident, which means that if he does not appeal or loses his appeal he would be subject to deportation. The other two cases are still pending.
What's particularly troubling about Singh's case is that although the administration claims that it is targeting naturalized citizens with past criminal records, it didn't outline any such record on his part.
More chillingly, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Francis Cissna claims that under the revived Operation Janus, he has cued up 1,600 cases like Singh's for prosecution.
Operation Janus was conceived after a Customs and Border Protection employee in 2008 identified 206 people who had received final deportation orders but went on to obtain citizenship under different names. A subsequent 2014 Inspector General report flagged about a thousand more such cases. But because the odds that terrorists were lurking among them were so low, the Department of Homeland Security basically decided to deploy other counter-terrorism strategies. The program was disbanded in 2016.
But the Trump administration revived it within months of assuming office. It has created a task force in the US Citizenship and Immigration Service and is furiously hiring lawyers, the Washington Examiner recently reported. The administration claims that apart from the 1,600 cases like Singh's it is pursuing legally, there are 315,000 more cases of suspect citizenship approval that it wants to investigate. These cases stem not from any evidence of malfeasance on the part of the applicants. Rather, they've been flagged because the DHS is missing their fingerprints. Why? Because the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service failed to digitize all its records.
Stripping people of citizenship is an awesome—and potentially—dangerous exercise of government power. Therefore, it is only right that the Supreme Court has set a rather high bar. Hence it is unclear how many people the administration will eventually succeed in denaturalizing. But what is clear is that it will use a lot of taxpayer resources to sow terror in yet another non-native group without any security upside for anyone. Indeed, since 1990 only seven denaturalization suits on average have been filed per year because it takes too much time and effort put together a credible case.
But Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is the brains behind the effort, is an anti-immigration zealot who doesn't care about any of this because he doesn't consider naturalized Americans to be real Americans, notes Dan Kesselbrenner, executive director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. The wait times for obtaining citizenship have doubled in the last few years. But far from tackling that problem, the administration wants to double down on harassing those already here.
Notes Kesselbrenner to Rewire.News:
The Trump administration is so concerned with enforcement in immigrant communities, they've chosen to prioritize this operation in ways another administration wouldn't. It's one thing to target these people and convict them for hiding serious criminal backgrounds. It's an entirely different thing to go after people who've been citizens a long time because they were dishonest for reasons we don't even know...It's vindictive...and it's totally unreasonable.