By Prem Calvin Prashad
Under the Trump administration, long-held truisms about immigration have been tested. Some in Trump’s inner circle have flirted with the idea of ending birthright citizenship as a way of punishing undocumented immigrants. Others have pledged to crack down on “immigration fraud,” a term with no precise legal definition, but up until now it referred to service providers that exploited immigrants rather than the immigrants themselves.
Most jarringly, breaking with Republicans before them, the Trump administration has now come out forcefully against legal immigration, ostensibly citing concerns about competition for jobs, but more nakedly concerned about the changing demographics of the United States.
Although there is all-around hostility to immigration in the Trump administration, one of the more recent efforts to harass legal immigrants is the idea of “de-naturalization,” conducting reviews of naturalization petitions for “fraud.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services went as far as to create a new office dedicated to those reviews in June.
To date, denaturalization is rare, with just 305 cases filed by the Department of Justice since 1990, according to figures obtained by the Associated Press. In fact, up until the present day, the process had been sued to strip citizenship from former Nazis who had escaped to the United States to avoid complicity. After World War II, Nazi war criminals used so-called ratlines to escape Europe, generally to Latin America, but occasionally the United States itself, as evidenced by the deportation of a Nazi living in Queens last week. Jakiw Palij had his citizenship revoked in 2003.
USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna indicated in June that he expects to denaturalize “a few thousand cases.” Immigration advocates worry however, that denaturalization will move from a rare occurrence to yet another weapon to be used against immigrants by a hostile federal government. Under the denaturalization effort, an American citizen, previously deported, who fails to disclose that at the time of a new application, could be stripped of his or her citizenship.
The major flaw here, aside from the fact that the targets of this new initiative are almost assuredly not Nazis, is that paperwork mistakes and discrepancies are all too common. People, for a variety of reasons, may change their names. Whereas in America most people have one surname or at least a hyphenated surname, in other countries one may have several. Even here in America, a common name such as Theodore or Edward may become Ted. Would anyone agree that Ted is committing fraud if he uses that name on an application?
Furthermore, as evidenced by generations of immigrants, the transliteration of names into English can be inconsistent. The Chinese surname Zhang can be Romanized as Chang, Cheung, Teo and so on. Filling out an application with a different spelling of the same name decades earlier could be construed as attempting to commit fraud. Aside from applicant error, bureaucratic delays may cause denaturalization to occur.
It was recently revealed that the USCIS had failed to update its fingerprint database with those of recent deportees, in theory allowing them to apply for citizenship and not be flagged. Under these efforts, those persons could have their citizenship revoked as well. However, setting aside that the error may be no fault of their own, compared to other crimes, stripping of citizenship and deportation from your home is a fate worse than prison. It must be understood that the punishment is no less severe if it does not end with incarceration. Furthermore, it seems strange that former concentration camp guards and people who make paperwork errors would meet the same punishment.
The revocation of citizenship is a serious matter. For countries that require all citizens to have just one citizenship, the revocation of their American citizenship may leave them stateless. The Trump administration continues to cite vague and obscure precedents in its war on legal and undocumented immigrants. Just as the case with child separations, the chosen remedy is on an order of magnitude significantly more Draconian than could possibly be warranted.