Immigrant advocates are alarmed after last week's Department of Justice announcement that Baljinder Singh had been stripped of his U.S. citizenship — the first under an Obama-era program.
They worry that more denaturalizations are to follow and are critical of the "aggressive" manner in which the government is seeking to denaturalize individuals as the pace of the investigations appears to have picked up over the past year.
"It's a very alarming thing to do because … [when] you become a U.S. citizen, you know, you belong here. You're part of the fabric of our society," said Sirine Shebaya, a senior staff attorney at Muslim Advocates, an advocacy group.
Operation Janus, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) probe, identified 315,000 immigrants whose fingerprints were missing from government databases, of which 1,000 have been referred for further investigation.
Shebaya told VOA that her group has filed a Freedom of Information Actto find out what policies are guiding the denaturalization case, fearing that the probe will be used to discriminate against Muslims or people from Muslim or South-Asian communities.
"Which is why we want more information about the decisions that are being made to go after denaturalization cases this way and to publicize it in this way," said Shebaya.
Operation Janus was started after DHS identified some 858 individuals who obtained U.S. citizenship under aliases after they had been ordered deported or removed. They were discovered when no digital fingerprint records were available.
"Although US Citizenship and Immigration Services procedures require checking applicants' fingerprints against both the Department of Homeland Security's and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) digital fingerprint repositories, neither contains all old fingerprint records. Not all old records were included in the DHS repository when it was being developed," according to a DHS document.
The government had Pavaez Manzoor Khan's fingerprints, according to his lawyer, but he is under threat of denaturalization in the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida.
"[My client] has been fingerprinted three separate times that we can count," said attorney James Lavigne, who is contesting the case on Khan's behalf.
Federal prosecutors claim that Khan, 60, of Pakistan, entered the U.S. in 1991 with a Pakistani passport in the name of Mohammad Akhtar. At the time, officials determined the photo in the passport had been altered.
Lavigne said his client "immediately" disclosed the passport "wasn't him."
The Pakistani man then applied for asylum and gave his name as Jaweed Khan.
When Khan failed to appear in immigration court, he was ordered deported in February 1992.
His client also did not know about the removal order, said Lavigne.
"The government knew who he was and where he was going to be. ... He doesn't have anything to hide," the attorney said.
As Parvez Manzoor Khan, Khan married a U.S. citizen, received permanent residency in 2001 and naturalization in 2006.
"He's been paying taxes. He's a taxpayer. He's been working... which is exactly what we want immigrants to do. … [My client] has U.S. citizen children here. And they wait 25 years to do something to him?"
Once common practice
According to SCOTUS blog, a blog written about the Supreme Court, 50 years ago the Supreme Court put a stop to the government's once-common practice of denaturalization, and in the process "redefin[ed] the country's understanding of sovereignty and citizenship."
Amanda Frost, a law professor American University Washington College of Law writing for the website, said through "much of the 20th century" government could end someone's citizenship, either native-born or naturalized citizens, for a variety of reasons.
"Between 1907 and 1922, women who married foreign men automatically lost their citizenship, and the government could also denationalize U.S. citizens for voting in foreign elections or deserting from the armed forces. Naturalized citizens were at even greater risk," Frost wrote.
But after a "series of decisions starting in the 1940s" the Supreme Court ended the practice.
In 1967, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority in the Afroyim v. Rusk and said, "In our country, the people are sovereign and the Government cannot sever its relationship to the people by taking away their citizenship," therefore it would be "completely incongruous to have a rule of law under which a group of citizens temporarily in office can deprive another group of citizens of their citizenship."
Since the 1967 case, SCOTUSblog reports that about 150 people have been denaturalized, most for committing fraud in the naturalization process.
The Singh case
In a January 5th 12-page decision, federal judge Stanley Chesler of the District of New Jersey granted the government's request to revoke Baljinder Singh's naturalization saying the government "has met its heavy burden in demonstrating, by clear and convincing evidence, that defendant's naturalization was illegally procured."
The judge said the U.S. Supreme Court has enumerated four requirements for denaturalization set by previous cases.
The government must show that the naturalized citizen misrepresented or concealed some facts, whether the misrepresentation or concealment was willful, whether the fact was material, and whether the naturalized citizen procured citizenship as a result of the misrepresentation or concealment.
Using the Supreme Court's independent requirements, Chesler sided with the Justice Department saying Singh "deliberately" willfully misrepresented information when he was applying for his U.S. citizenship.
Chesler wrote: "Defendant did not disclose his previous arrival in the United States under a different name, his previous application for asylum, or the removal proceedings and 'in absentia' exclusion order against him."
Singh did not respond to the complaint within the time allowed by law. There is no attorney information immediately available for him and he could not be immediately reached Thursday.
But Lavigne said, unlike Singh, his client plans to fight until the end. "We still have the right to a trial which we will attend as well," he said.
Singh's immigration status was reverted from U.S. citizen to lawful permanent resident. He could be subject to removal proceedings at the DHS's discretion, according to the Justice Department.