WASHINGTON - The U.S. Justice Department announced Wednesday that it has created a new office to investigate an influx of immigrants suspected of illegally obtaining U.S. citizenship and to seek court orders to strip them of naturalization.
The move is part of the Trump administration’s aggressive enforcement of immigration laws over the past three years, including laws that allow the government to denaturalize and deport foreign-born citizens.
Since 2017, the Justice Department has filed 94 denaturalization cases in federal court, a 200% annual increase, according to a department official. During the same period, the number of case referrals soared by 600% a year, the official said.
The Justice Department said the new denaturalization section was created in response to a growing number of referrals coming from law enforcement agencies such as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
"The Denaturalization Section will further the Department’s efforts to pursue those who unlawfully obtained citizenship status and ensure that they are held accountable for their fraudulent conduct,” Jody Hunt, assistant attorney general in charge of the civil division, said in a statement.
The new section will investigate and litigate denaturalization cases involving terrorists, war criminals, sex offenders and other fraudsters, the department said.
"When a terrorist or sex offender becomes a U.S. citizen under false pretenses, it is an affront to our system. And it is especially offensive to those who fall victim to these criminals,” Hunt said.
Critics say the administration has cast a much wider net, using denaturalization to clamp down on legal and illegal immigration. As early as 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the department "will aggressively pursue denaturalization" and that "denaturalization will play a prominent role in securing the integrity of our immigration system."
"This is just part of a multiyear process by which the government has been ramping up denaturalization, and it began shortly after President Trump entered office," said Amanda Frost, a professor at American University Washington College of Law, and a leading authority on denaturalization.
Under U.S. law, naturalized citizens can be stripped of citizenship if they have acquired naturalization without meeting the legal requirements or have lied about a relevant fact during the application process.
The process of denaturalization often originates at USCIS. Once the agency has identified a fraud case, it refers it to the Justice Department, which files a civil suit for denaturalization. USCIS can also bring criminal charges of immigration fraud.
Denaturalization does not automatically result in deportation. People stripped of their citizenship will revert to the status of a permanent resident, whose green card can be taken away and who can be removed from the country.
In a press statement, the Justice Department provided a list of 10 people who were stripped of their citizenship in recent years, ranging from convicted terrorists to human rights violators.
In 2017, Khaled Abu al-Dahab, an Egyptian American convicted of terrorism in Egypt, was denaturalized while in his native country, stripped of his passport and prevented from returning to the United States.
In 2018, a federal judge revoked the citizenship of convicted Bosnian war criminal Edin Dzeko, who moved to the United States as a refugee before becoming a citizen in 2006.
Christian Penichet-Paul, a policy and advocacy manager with the National Immigration Forum, said he hoped the administration's denaturalization efforts are limited to the most egregious cases.
"We must ensure that denaturalization isn't applied to cases where people have made a small and unintended mistake during the application process," he said.
Other cases appear to have stemmed from an Obama-era Department of Homeland Security investigation that exposed rampant fraud among citizenship applicants. The investigation, code-named Operation Janus, identified 315,000 immigrants whose fingerprints were missing from government databases. Immigration officials are concerned that many of the immigrants may have used fake identifies to obtain citizenship.
The immigrants faced deportation or were criminal fugitives, and "some may have sought to circumvent criminal records and other background checks in the naturalization process," the department said.
In the first case growing out of Operation Janus, a federal judge stripped an Indian American, Baljindar Singh, of his citizenship. It is not clear whether Singh was deported.
The U.S. government used denaturalization throughout the first half of the 20th century to take away the citizenship of people suspected of communist sympathies or fighting in foreign wars. But a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1967, Afroyim v. Rusk, put an end to the practice.
In 2017, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in another denaturalization case, barring the government from denaturalizing citizens for making "non-material" false statements on their citizenship applications.