Originally published by The New Yorker
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.
Earlier this year, I wrote about a very different case, that of a forty-three-year-old man named 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.
Back in 1989, I had to make a decision about whether to lie on my citizenship application. At the time, immigration law banned “aliens afflicted with sexual deviation,” among others suffering from “psychopathic personality,” from entry to the United States. I had come to this country as a fourteen-year-old, in 1981, but I had been aware of my “sexual deviation” at the time, and this technically meant that I should not have entered the country. I decided to append a letter to my citizenship application, informing the Immigration and Naturalization Service that I was homosexual but that I disagreed with the exclusion and would be willing to discuss the matter in court. I was young, ambitious, and pragmatically cocky: I had entered the country as a stateless person, not to mention a minor, so I figured that I couldn’t be deported. The rational thing to do, however, would have been to obfuscate on my citizenship application.
My application was granted without my having to fight for it in court. I hadn’t thought about my naturalization for years, but I find myself thinking about it now, thankful for the near-accident of not having lied on my application. Over the years, the applications for both citizenship and permanent residence have grown ever longer, filling with questions that seem to be designed to be used against the applicant. Question 26 on the green-card application, for example, reads, “Have you EVER committed a crime of any kind (even if you were not arrested, cited, charged with, or tried for that crime)?” (Emphasis in the original.) The question does not specify whether it refers to a crime under current U.S. law or the laws of the country in which the crime might have been committed. In the Soviet Union of my youth, it was illegal to possess foreign currency or to spend the night anywhere you were not registered to live. In more than seventy countries, same-sex sexual activity is still illegal. On closer inspection, just about every naturalized citizen might look like an outlaw, or a liar.