In June, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) quietly announced the creation of a Denaturalization Task Force aimed at finding and deporting naturalized citizens who are suspected of lying on their citizenship applications. The news has stoked fears that President Trump’s already restrictive immigration policies are taking a McCarthy-style authoritarian turn. It has many naturalized citizens asking when the government can take away your citizenship, and more importantly, what omissions are relevant to the inquiry. If an omission is considered lying, then is forgetting to list a prior address or failing to mention your nickname in the “other names used” section enough to launch a denaturalization fishing expedition? Let’s discuss.
A Lawful Permanent Resident (an “LPR”) can apply for naturalization if he/she has been a Legal Permanent Resident for at least five years (or three years in some limited cases), is at least 18 years old, has continuous residence in the U.S., has good moral character, and is able to pass a civics and history test in English. The most common reasons people get denied include having tax issues, owing child support, having arrests, or traveling too much outside of the country.
Assuming an LPR applies and is granted citizenship, can it ever be taken away? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. However, it is currently extremely difficult to denaturalize someone, and it very rarely happens in practice. Denaturalization, which is the legal process of stripping someone of his or her citizenship by revoking it, has had a torrid past that for centuries was at the center of racists and xenophobic immigration policies, such as anti-Asian movements and McCarthy era inquiries into political ideologies. But today, a naturalized citizen of the United States can generally only be denaturalized if they refuse to testify before Congress, are proven a member of a subversive organization (such as the Nazi party or Al Qaeda), due to a dishonorable discharge, or falsified or concealed relevant information in their naturalization application.
The last of these reasons is what has most of the naturalized public concerned. While the idea of “falsifying” or “concealing” information sounds quite extreme, applicants commit many errors when applying that can later be deemed “lying.” For example, the application asks for “other names you have used since birth.” Do you have to list your embarrassing childhood nickname or the misspelling of your name that someone accidentally printed on your diploma? Well, the fact is, that if you don’t list them, the FBI can’t fully crosscheck its database. This may sound like a silly example, but let’s put it in context:
Let’s say you’re Russian, and your name is Андрей. You’ve always translated it as “Andrei” on your US paperwork, but your US friends call you “Andrew.” You entered on a tourist visa, met an amazing woman, overstayed your visa, got married, and applied for residency and later citizenship. Congratulations, you’re a citizen. Now what if back when you overstayed your visa, immigration initiated removal proceedings against you, and you didn’t even know about it until recently. The officer who issued the Court documentation spelled your name “Andrey,” which is a common variance in spelling when translating your name. You’ve seen it accidentally spelled that way before on some of your old paperwork. You personally never used the “Andrey” spelling so you never listed this on your naturalization application as an alias, and thus this past deportation order never came up in the naturalization background checks. Now what? Does it make a difference if it’s been ten (10) years since you became a citizen? What if it’s been thirty (30) years?
The Miami Herald recently reported on an elderly woman who is undergoing denaturalization proceedings because she failed to disclose her previous involvement in a crime. As reported, she was “the secretary of an export company called Texon Inc., [where] she prepared paperwork for her boss, who pocketed money from doctored loan applications filed with the U.S. Export-Import Bank.” You can read the full article here: LINK. She never made any money beyond her salary, and in the end, she helped the FBI make a case that put her former boss behind bars. She took a plea deal. The arrest, the investigation, the cooperation… it all happened after she had become a US citizen. So why is she being denaturalized? The application of naturalization includes a question that asks, “Have you EVER committed, assisted in committing, or attempted to commit, a crime or offense for which you were NOT arrested?” She answered “no,” and now the government is arguing that the scheme started before she became a citizen, so she lied by not admitting to crimes for which she had not been arrested. This presents serious due process concerns because had she known she could lose her citizenship, perhaps she would not have taken a plea deal—perhaps she would have taken the case to trial seeking a “not guilty” verdict.
Does this mean you must mark “yes” if you frequently drive above the posted speed limit? Last year, the US Supreme Court heard a case (Maslenjak v. The United States) about how broadly the US government could use this question against a naturalized citizen. The US attorney argued that they could use this type of “lie” against a naturalized citizen for any crime, even minor traffic offenses. In response, Justice Stephen Breyer said he found it “rather surprising that the government of the United States thinks” the naturalization law should be “interpreted in a way that would throw into doubt the citizenship of vast percentages of all naturalized citizens.” Ultimately, the Court ruled unanimously that only material offenses need be disclosed, but how the term “material offenses” will be interpreted is only now beginning to play out in denaturalization cases around the country, as long-term citizens are finding themselves in court.
Given the current political climate and anti-immigrant rhetoric, citizens are right to worry about the new denaturalization task force. BUT SO FAR, the law is on their side. The Supreme Court decision ensured that not all “lies” open someone up to denaturalization because not all lies or omissions make someone ineligible for naturalization in the first place. This is good news because even though, in theory, the government could try to denaturalize you over a typo or simple error, they will have a tough time sustaining it in court. Nevertheless, the fear being generated is very real and the timing of the creation of this task force casts doubts on the administration’s motives. Maybe legally-speaking naturalized citizens shouldn’t be too worried, but as Vox writer Dara Lind said, “their worry comes from a place far too deep to be calmed by promises that the law ought to protect them. After all, they had thought the law gave them the same rights, as citizens, as any American born here.” The task force reads as another step towards the erosion of the American Dream.