Stripping Naturalized Immigrants of Their Citizenship Isn’t New

The United States has a history of denaturalization spanning more than a century

The Naturalization Act of 1906
The Naturalization Act of 1906 federalized the naturalization process, allowing millions of immigrants a smoother process for becoming U.S. citizens. Bain News Service/Bain Collection, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

In January 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice revoked the citizenship of Baljinder Singh a.k.a. Davinder Singh, a naturalized Indian American. Singh, who first arrived to the United States in 1991, was accused of misrepresenting his identity and failing to disclose a deportation order on an asylum application. “The defendant exploited our immigration system,” said Chad Readler, assistant attorney general for the department’s civil division.

Singh’s case was the first to be concluded under the Operation Janus program of the Department of Homeland Security. Begun during the Obama administration, the program exists to identify individuals who may have committed naturalization fraud, by consulting fingerprint records collected by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Under Operation Janus, USCIS intends to bring denaturalization proceedings against an additional 1,600 individuals.

This effort has in turn spawned Operation Second Look, another DHS program to follow leads obtained from Operation Janus. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget, the agency seeks to hire staff to review about 700,000 “alien files” for naturalization fraud under Operation Second Look. The first citizens to have been caught up in this new dragnet include a 46-year-old Bangladeshi American woman and a 56-year-old Haitian American woman, both living in Florida. Another Florida resident, a 63-year-old woman who migrated to the United States from Peru in 1989, recently received a letter from the DOJ about an impending denaturalization lawsuit against her.

The reactions to these cases—as well as to USCIS director L. Francis Cissna’s recent statements to the Associated Press about hiring dozens of lawyers and immigration officers to review cases of naturalization fraud—have been a mix of shock, disbelief and fear. Given the current news climate, it is hard to see this multi-agency effort to denaturalize U.S. citizens as apolitical. But denaturalization, or even the expatriation of U.S.-born citizens, is not new. In fact, it is part and parcel of the federal system of naturalization that was first put into place in the early 20th century. What’s new is the renewed vigor that marks recent efforts.

The Naturalization Act of 1906 was the first law in U.S. history that provided for denaturalization. The same act also federalized the naturalization process for the first time in U.S. history. (Prior to passage of the law, immigrants sought naturalization in state courts.) Federalization allowed millions of European immigrants to become U.S. citizens with ease. Causes for denaturalization under the 1906 Act included fraud, racial ineligibility and lack of “good moral character.” In 1907, Congress expanded the laws on loss of citizenship by marking for expatriation all U.S.-born citizens who had naturalized in foreign nations and women who had married foreigners. These laws were revised in subsequent years, most notably through the 1940 Nationality Act and the 1952 McCarran Walter Act, which added voting in foreign elections or serving in the armed forces of another country as additional reasons for loss of citizenship. (Curious readers born in the United States should turn to the section titled “Important Information” in their passports where they can find a list of circumstances that can, on paper, result in loss of citizenship.)

According to Patrick Weil, a visiting professor of law at Yale who’s written extensively about denaturalization, between 1907 and 1973 the U.S. government recorded 22,026 instances of naturalization cancellations. These numbers rise when Weil adds in instances of expatriation of U.S.-born citizens: between 1945 and 1977, Weil calculates, 120,770 U.S. citizens lost their nationality. But the numbers are likely much higher: no reliable data exists for the number of women who were automatically considered expatriated upon marrying a foreigner, or for citizens who were administratively determined to have lost their citizenship for violating the nationality laws. (A remarkable but brief story appearing in the September 16, 1946, issue of Time magazine reports that “70,000-odd U.S. citizens living in Canada . . . automatically lost their U.S. citizenship” as a result of voting in Canadian elections. “Expatriated Americans” were instructed by the U.S. Consulate in Toronto to “regain their lost citizenship simply by applying to any U.S. diplomatic officer in Canada.” It’s unclear how many actually did.)

Operation Janus and Operation Second Look are also not the first time federal agencies have devoted labor and resources to systematically denaturalizing individuals or groups. In the 1920s, the Justice Department initiated denaturalization proceedings against dozens of naturalized citizens of Indian origin following the 1923 Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Thind, which determined Indians to be racially ineligible for citizenship. Anarchists have been subjected to denaturalization or threats thereof at various points (Emma Goldman’s case is probably the best known). And during the Second World War, the DOJ targeted members of the German-American Bund for denaturalization.

What’s changed since then are intervening Supreme Court cases in the 1950s and ’60s that declared unconstitutional several statutes pertaining to denationalization. Chief among these was Afroyim v. Rusk (1967), in which the Supreme Court determined that a naturalized American had not lost his U.S. citizenship as a result of voting in Israeli elections. “Citizenship is no light trifle to be jeopardized any moment Congress decides to do so under the names of one of its general or implied grants of power,” wrote Justice Hugo Black in his majority opinion. At the time, the Justice Department interpreted the ruling by severely limiting denaturalization and expatriation. Weil writes that since 1968, fewer than 150 people have been denaturalized, but many of them were targeted for committing fraud during the naturalization process.

Now, fraud is front and center in denaturalization initiatives. Unfortunately, determining what constitutes “naturalization fraud” isn’t always cut and dried. The current application for naturalization, Form N-400, is 20 pages long, and asks questions such as “Have you EVER been arrested, cited, or detained by any law enforcement officer . . . for any reason?” The question leaves room for interpretation. Does one have to report incidents that occurred outside the United States? Online debate rages over whether traffic violations should be reported in response to this question.

As Masha Gessen, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a naturalized U.S. citizen, recently wrote, the government’s latest denaturalization efforts jeopardize “the naturalization of the more than twenty million naturalized citizens in the American population by taking away their assumption of permanence.” This is happening despite the Supreme Court’s judgment in Schneider v. Rusk (1964) that it is “impermissible” to assume “that naturalized citizens as a class are less reliable and bear less allegiance to this country than do the native born.” After his denaturalization, Baljinder Singh was demoted to his prior status as a green-card holder, a status that the DOJ noted rendered him subject to deportation at the DHS’s discretion. Programs like Operation Janus and Operation Second Look not only create a culture of fear, they encourage the idea that naturalized citizenship is less than birthright citizenship.

This was originally published on the American Historical Association newsmagazine Perspectives on History.

Kritika Agarwal is associate editor, publications, at the AHA. She tweets @kritikaldesi.

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