As we’ve seen for a while now, it isn’t just undocumented immigrants who have reason to fear the policies of this administration. They have also drastically reduced the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country and targeted the elimination of Temporary Protected Status for those who have come here to escape both war and natural disasters.
On Wednesday, the Department of Justice announced the creation of a new unit designed to denaturalize those who have gained U.S. citizenship. Almost two years ago, Francis Cissna, Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, announced a task force “to review cases of immigrants who were ordered deported and are suspected of using fake identities to later get green cards and citizenship through naturalization.” The new unit at DOJ appears to build on that effort, suggesting that “the growing number of referrals anticipated from law enforcement agencies motivated the creation of a standalone section dedicated to this important work.”
The press release announcing this new effort goes to great lengths to suggest that the work is all about identifying those who received citizenship fraudulently and are terrorists, war criminals, and sex offenders. However, the 20 million naturalized citizens in this country who are not criminals or terrorists have reason to be concerned.
First of all, that is because Donald Trump once told us that his deportation efforts would focus on “removing the most dangerous criminal illegal immigrants in America.” But as Philip Bump documented, “the administration’s removal efforts are prioritized in a way that’s much closer to ‘get everyone out’ than ‘removing criminals.’”
Similarly, Cissna suggested previously that the denaturalization effort would focus on people who knowingly lied on their citizenship application rather than those who simply made a mistake. But as Masha Gessen points out, “that distinction is fuzzier than some might assume.”
As an example, Gessen points to the fact that applications for both citizenship and permanent residence have grown ever longer. The current green card application includes this question: “Have you EVER committed a crime of any kind (even if you were not arrested, cited, charged with, or tried for that crime)?” The emphasis is included on the form, which makes no effort to distinguish misdemeanors from felonies, just as it fails to specify whether crimes committed in another country are included. Gessen, who is a naturalized citizen, points out that in his home country of Russia, it was a crime to spend the night anywhere you were not registered to live.
Perhaps even more importantly, Gessen writes this:
Historically, denaturalization has been an exceedingly rare occurrence, for good reason: by the time a person is naturalized, she has lived in this country for a number of years and has passed the hurdles of obtaining entry, legal permanent residency, and, finally, citizenship. The conceit of naturalization is that it makes an immigrant not only equal to natural-born citizens but indistinguishable from them.
If, as DOJ suggested, this was merely a way to target criminals and terrorists, those cases could be handled in the same way that our criminal justice system deals with natural-born citizens. But that’s not what this is all about.
This effort is, at its heart, a way to strip naturalized citizens of that sense of equality with natural-born citizens. Just as Trump has done with undocumented immigrants, he has attempted to suggest that naturalized citizens pose a malevolent threat to this country. In other words, it is simply another way of implementing this administration’s xenophobic policies.