Tanjeen Twinkle was brought to the United States from her native Bangladesh as a one year old by her family who wanted to ensure she got better education and, as a child who frequently got sick, the best possible medical care.
Twinkle obtained U.S. citizenship alongside her parents in 2012.
“My parents worked so hard to get it,” said Twinkle, a senior journalism major. “I would be so pissed if it was taken away from them.”
Such a concern could become reality for many naturalized citizens. On Feb. 26, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the creation of an office dedicated to denaturalization of immigrants.
The new division will process denaturalization of terrorists, war criminals, sex offenders and other fraudsters, according to the DOJ website. Its creation comes amid other new immigration policies released earlier this year, including the Public Charge Rule implemented on Feb. 24, which expands the list of public benefits, like supplemental security income and public housing, that can affect the decision of whether an individual can become a permanent resident, according to the National Law Review.
A naturalized citizen is an individual from a foreign country who is granted U.S. citizenship after fulfilling requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, according to the Department of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. About 800,000 applied for naturalization in 2018, according to the July 2019 report by the Pew Research Center.
President Donald Trump’s immigration policy has consisted of travel bans against multiple Muslim-majority and African countries and increased policing of migrants seeking asylum at the Mexican border, the New Yorker reported in February. Trump repeatedly uses words like “invasion,” “animal” and “killer” when discussing immigration in campaign rallies, USA Today reported in August 2019.
Essentially, Trump has created an administration that vilifies immigrants, which makes the creation of this denaturalization office even scarier.
While the DOJ’s website states the office’s goal is to help bring justice, it could also serve as an instrument to target and strip immigrants of citizenship, and allow for tougher war on immigration.
To prove its point of existence, the DOJ cites 10 cases where criminals were successfully stripped of their American citizenships, including a recruiter for al-Qaeda and a sex offender who molested a seven-year-old family member.
If the office were to prosecute only these types of criminals and national security threats, its existence would be justified. But promoting 10 of the worst cases is misleading and does not legitimize denaturalization of other individuals who did not make the list.
“The existence of the office itself is problematic because now you have people that have to justify their jobs, their roles,” said Jonathan Grode, an adjunct instructor at the Beasley School of Law and a U.S. practice director at the Green and Spiegel LLC, an immigration law firm. “Is that gonna lead to overstepping? Is that gonna lead to, you know, individuals maybe getting their naturalization attacked because of the issues of retribution or political leanings? That’s where it becomes challenging.”
The practice of denaturalization is not completely new, it was only used infrequently so far, the New York Times reported. Former President Barack Obama’s administration also revoked citizenships of people who committed crimes, but the numbers increased significantly under Trump. While 228 denaturalization cases have been filed since 2008, 40 percent of them were filed since 2017, the Times further reported.
In its 2019 budget, the Department of Homeland Security stated it plans to review an estimated 700,000 cases.
“When you naturalize, you become a U.S. citizen, the idea is that you are as American as everybody else,” Grode said. “You are equal to someone who was born here. And in some instances, in some countries they don’t allow for dual nationalities, you are actually renouncing your other citizenship, giving it up.“
There are various countries which don’t recognize dual citizenship, like Japan, Singapore, Nepal and the Netherlands, meaning an individual has to renounce their native citizenship in order to become a U.S. citizen, Insider reported.
Such a matter is worsened by the fact that the U.S. allows for statelessness, a renunciation of U.S. citizenship while the person has no other country affiliation and possesses no protection of any government, according to the U.S. Department of State. Stateless individuals are then caught in the system, often taken to detention centers, and staying there for a long time because there is no country to return them to.
The statement from the DOJ does not address any of this.
Individuals who commited the worst possible crimes have been denaturalized in the past, but the existence of the new office whose only job is to strip immigrants of their citizenships and very little information provided is worrisome.
While Twinkle believes it really depends on the kind of crime these people commit, they are still citizens, she said.
“You don’t want people who committed a crime in the country, but they are citizens at the end of the day and they are part of the country,” Twinkle said. “So instead of sending them away, why don’t you just put them in jail in the United States.”
The only reason people should be scared is if they did not get their green card legitimately, Grode said.
“In that respect, you know, maybe the program is doing what it is meant to do, we don’t want people getting benefits they are not entitled to,” he said. “We want to protect people’s rights but we also want to protect this country. And I think that’s why this new department strikes such a court.”
Only the future will show whether and to what degree the department will misuse its power. But the rhetoric of the department is so vague and unclear that it is certainly something to watch out for.
“With this administration, I think, people are rightfully very concerned that it’s gonna be weaponized,” Grode added.