For some U.S. citizens, the wait after submitting an immigration applicant can be decades long, add another few years of holding permanent residence status before becoming eligible to apply for citizenship, you study hard to learn a few hundred years of American history and laws, pass your citizenship test, and get notified of your big oath ceremony date. The big day finally comes, you become an American citizen, only hear on the news that the Trump administration have started a task force to strip people of their citizenship and deport them. This blog summarizes some of the myths and truth about denaturalization.

One thing should be made clear first, the process of denaturalizing citizens has existed for decades. It is easy to think that this is a new phenomenon as it fits in the narrative of recent immigration changes. But there have been records of people being stripped of their citizenship as far back as the 20th century. Around the World War II era, a person can be denaturalized and deported for espousing pacifism in war time. In 1941, if the government determined that you were a member of the Communist party, you can get your citizenship revoked. U.S. citizenship wasn’t even offered to non-white people until after 1940, when some Indian immigrants were stripped of their citizenship after the government found out they were not white. So even though the process is rare, it does happen and has happened in the past.

Under what circumstances can a person be denaturalized?

In the 1967 court case of Afroyim vs Rusk, the Supreme Court ruled that individual citizens, not the state, had sovereignty over their citizenship. What this means is that citizenship was not considered a privilege that can be revoked for misbehavior, or behavior that are considered “un-American”. The government did not have the power, in this court case, to strip the person of his citizenship because he registered to vote in Israel after he became a U.S. citizen.

What this left the government with, is the ability to revoke a person’s citizenship if they should not have been granted that citizenship to begin with. To begin the denaturalization process, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has to file a civil lawsuit against a citizen. The lawsuit with been taken in front of a judge and the final decision of whether or not this person loses their citizenship will be left up to the judge. The DOJ can only file a denaturalization lawsuit against a naturalized citizen under two circumstances:

  1. They obtained their citizenship illegally. For example, they didn’t actually meet the requirements of citizenship; or
  2. They lied about or concealed something during the citizenship process that was relevant to their case.

If the government prevails in court, the immigrant reverts from being a U.S. citizen back to being a lawful permanent resident, or a Green Card holder. Green Card holders can be stripped of their legal status and deported. So, the denaturalization lawsuit does not automatically deport a person, but it does open the door to that possibility by stripping them of the only foolproof protection against deportation an immigrant has.

What is Operation Janus?

In 2008, back in the Bush era, a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer discovered that more than 200 people from four countries have become U.S. citizens despite having past deportation orders by changing their name and identities. They managed to slip through the system as the fraudsters’ fingerprints were not digitalized at the time. The DHS subsequently launched a task force to figure out how many more naturalized immigrants have slipped through the system this way, this task force is called Operation Janus. In 2011, the operation calculated that around 315,000 Americans managed to slip through the system that same way, these individuals may not have all obtained their citizenship illegally, but their fingerprints are not in the system, leaving open the possibility. However, the department ran out of money before it could finish the job.

In late 2016, the Trump administration started accelerating its Operation Janus efforts again. In September 2017, the DOJ filed three civil denaturalization suits, the first successful order was issued in January 2018. In June 2018, the director of USCIS, L. Francis Cissna, announced that a group of attorneys have been hired for the purpose of investigating the remaining Operation Janus cases and will make the necessary referral to the Department of Justice for prosecution. Cissna stated that all this task force will do is figure out the remaining 315,000 cases, not look through all past naturalization applications for fraud. It remains to be seen if the operation will stick to those mandates.

What does this actually mean for you?

Most people have nothing to worry about. If Operation Janus’ mandate remains that narrow, 99% of the naturalized citizens of the United States have nothing to worry about. However, having USCIS devote resources specifically to denaturalization is unprecedented in the agency’s history. This is an important symbolic change to an agency that is theoretically supposed to be the welcoming arm of U.S. immigration, something that has changed in the recent months. Given the recent changes where the government aggressively attacked asylum seekers and migrant children, with the president complaining about taking people from “shithole” countries, it’s inevitable that naturalized citizens around America will start wondering if they made a typo all those years ago, or forgot something, or told a white lie, and if that will now be used to deport them.

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