Last week, it emerged that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (U.S.C.I.S.) had formed a task force in order to identify people who lied on their citizenship applications and to denaturalize them. Amid the overwhelming flow of reports of families being separated at the border and children being warehoused, this bit of bureaucratic news went largely unnoticed. But it adds an important piece to our understanding of how American politics and culture are changing.
Like many of the Trump Administration’s sadistic immigration innovations, the new task force doesn’t reflect a change in the law. In fact, like a number of practices, including mass deportations, it builds on the legacy of the Obama Administration, which set in motion the process of reëxamining old naturalization files. L. Francis Cissna, the director of U.S.C.I.S., told the Associated Press that his agency is looking for people who “should not have been naturalized in the first place”—for example, those who had been ordered to be deported earlier and obtained citizenship under a different name—and this sounds reasonable enough. It’s the apparent underlying premise that makes this new effort so troublesome: the idea that America is under attack by malevolent immigrants who cause dangerous harm by finding ways to live here.
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. So denaturalization, much like the process of stripping a natural-born American of citizenship, has been an extraordinary procedure reserved for very serious cases, mostly those of war criminals.
Let’s look at Baljinder Singh, who was denaturalized after living in this country for twenty-six years. Singh was not a war criminal, or any other kind of criminal, but his immigration process had been a mess, and may have involved the intentional fudging of his first name. What was exceptional about Singh, though, was that he was ordinary, both as a one-time asylum seeker and as a resident of New Jersey. But he was clearly no ordinary citizen, for no one would call into question an ordinary, native-born citizen’s right to reside permanently in the United States, or to work, vote, and receive benefits. In effect, Singh’s naturalization was undone long before he was actually denaturalized.
The new task force will produce many more such cases. Indeed, 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. All of them—all of us—are second-class citizens now. The President calls immigrants “animals.” The Attorney General presumes that everyone crossing the border—or at least the southern border—is a criminal.
Michael Bars, the U.S.C.I.S. spokesman, told the Washington Examiner that the agency is hiring dozens of lawyers for the new task force. The mandate, according to both Cissna and Bars, is to find people who deliberately lied on their citizenship applications, not those who made innocent mistakes. The distinction is fuzzier than one might assume.
Is the government going to go so far back in time as to when homosexuality was illegal and try to claim people lied on their n400 about their sexual orientation and try to take their citizenship away? Is the government going to look for their own mistakes on processing n400s to declare ones citizenship void? I feel this is a slippery slope on this ridiculous notion of national populism that exists today. We need to take back our government and promote laws that favor immigration, not strip it down to an us versus them notion of discrimination.
Masha Gessen contributed to this posting from the New Yorker Greg Hoover also added opinions to it.