I’ve attended two naturalization ceremonies in my life. The first, in 2014, when I became a U.S. Citizen, and the second, last week, when I had the honor of greeting 116 new Americans in the nation’s capital. It was one of those moments where everything about America seems rose-tinted. We wave small American flags, cheer loudly, and tear up, because American citizenship is ours forever.
President Trump has placed that rite of passage under threat.
Over the past decade an average of 750,000 people each year, from every corner of the world, have chosen to become American citizens. Fifty-seven different countries were represented during my own naturalization ceremony four years ago. For many of us, the naturalization ceremony is a culmination of long, painful journeys, sacrifice, and scrutiny. We undergo years of background checks, fingerprinting, check-ins with federal immigration authorities, and in-person interviews to earn our citizenship. At the naturalization ceremony, a judge takes us through the Oath of Allegiance, which ends with the words, “I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me God.” It is supposed to be the final step of a joint commitment.
But under Trump, the sanctity of one of the greatest promises the United States makes to Americans is in peril. There are two distinct efforts within the Department of Homeland Security to denaturalize American citizens.
Denaturalization isn’t new. It became legal under the 1906 Naturalization Act. The intended purpose of that law was to streamline the naturalization process across all states. And under its terms, denaturalization has been exceedingly rare, reserved for extreme cases like child rape, and treason. From 1990 through 2017 the U.S government only pursued an average of 11 denaturalization cases each year. Since Trump became president his anti-immigrant army has decided to proactively lend significant resources to seek out candidates for denaturalization, and has referred more than 100 cases to the Department of Justice for review with thousands more in the pipeline.
In June, USCIS Director Lee Francis Cissna announced a new office in Los Angeles formed for the sole purpose of investigating “a few thousand” naturalized citizens. Cissna is on a mission to ensure America is not a place that welcomes immigrants, and he is succeeding. Where once our government would only seek to denaturalize the least deserving of citizenship, it is now referring women like Norma Borgono, a 63-year-old citizen and grandmother in Miami, because she once unknowingly prepared fraudulent paperwork for her boss—a man she later cooperated with the FBI against.
This new USCIS office runs parallel to Operation Janus, which the Bush administration launched in 2008, and the Obama administration shuttered in 2016. The goal of the operation was to identify naturalized citizens who may have faced deportation, but used false identities to complete the naturalization process. The operation identified 858 individuals to be investigated further. According to a September 2016 DHS report, the Office of Operations Coordination (OPS) terminated Operation Janus and disbanded its staff, as the operation was not meant to be a permanent effort to denaturalize American citizens. USCIS announced in January that it plans to refer 1,600 new cases under the revived operation.
Under the Trump administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is devoting $207.6 million to hire 300 dedicated investigators to look for cases of citizenship and green card fraud, according to the agency’s FY 2019 budget. All of these resources will be expended toward the end of denaturalizing U.S. citizens who have already undergone massive inspection, paid fees, and sworn before God that they are Americans. This is the only witch hunt happening in 2018.
The Trump administration’s efforts to instill fear in immigrant communities—separating families at the border, ripping families apart through deportations, warning those of us who are naturalized that we are not beyond the nativists’ claws—will have lasting damage. They are reneging on commitments to people who replenish America, who keep it young, and diverse, and productive, and their betrayals haven’t gone unnoticed.
However, as I delivered my remarks at the E. Barrett Pettyman United States Courthouse, and looked out upon 116 new Americans from over 40 different countries, each of whom has a story of sacrifice, it renewed my sense of hope for the future of our country. All of us who are immigrants in the United States have climbed unimaginable walls to become citizens, and now, armed with the right to vote, we can fight for an America that is open and inclusive for people like us.