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The New War on Naturalized Citizens

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Any day now, a federal judge in Florida will decide whether Parvez Manzoor Khan can remain a U.S. citizen.

Khan, a 62-year-old truck driver from Branford, Florida, is one of the first people brought to trial under Operation Janus and Operation Second Look, the Trump administration’s mass denaturalization campaign. If the judge rules against him, Khan will likely be deported away from his U.S. citizen wife and son, and barred forever from living in the United States—his only home for the last 27 years. The ruling will further destabilize the status of America’s 20 million naturalized citizens, each of whom is at risk for being investigated and then targeted over flaws in their naturalization process.

The denaturalization campaign that led to Khan’s trial can be traced back to the Obama administration. In 2016, the government announced that it had failed to digitize 315,000 fingerprint records, and as a result had granted citizenship to 858 individuals without realizing they had been ordered deported under another identity. But the Obama administration pursued denaturalization cautiously, recognizing that some cases were simply a matter of a misspelled name or misdirected paperwork, and others involved long-standing members of the community who posed no risk to national security.

In exercising restraint, the Obama administration was following a half-century tradition in which both Republican and Democratic administrations avoided denaturalization in all but the most extreme cases. Between 1990 and 2016, the government denaturalized an average of only 11 people a year, some years none. Most were serious war criminals who had lied about their human-rights offenses to gain American citizenship.

Once President Trump took office, however, the gloves came off. The government recently announced it will be investigating 700,000 naturalized citizens, and it is sparing no expense. To staff the effort, the government has opened a new office in Los Angeles and is in the process of hiring 300 special agents and 212 support personnel to investigate denaturalization as well as immigration benefits fraud, at a cost of $207.6 million.

So what has Parvez Khan done to justify being among the first targets of this massive and costly effort to take away his citizenship? Did he hide a history of crimes against humanity during his youth in Pakistan? Is he a potential terrorist who poses a grave risk to national security? Does he have a criminal record that makes him a risk to his fellow Floridians?

The government claims none of these things. Indeed, it has struggled to prove that the errors in Khan’s naturalization process were anything more than inadvertent mistakes.

At his trial this past April, Khan sat quietly next to his U.S. citizen wife, Betty Louise, until he was called to testify. They have been married for over two decades, and they have a U.S. citizen son. When Khan took the stand, he quickly established that he has no criminal convictions and that he has worked and paid taxes in the United States since he arrived from Pakistan 27 years ago. He has been a U.S. citizen for over a decade.

Not that Khan is blameless. As he readily admitted, he used another person’s passport and visa in an attempt to enter the United States illegally in 1991. He was immediately arrested by U.S. immigration officials, who held him in detention for a month. Khan spoke hardly a word of English and immigration officials failed to provide him with an Urdu interpreter. All Khan knew was that after four weeks under lock and key, immigration officials drove him to a bus stop and told him he was “free to go.” Khan, who had nothing more than a high school education in Pakistan, assumed that meant he was now permitted to stay in the United States.

The rest of the story is a comedy of errors. Immigration officials sent notices of immigration court hearings and eventually a notice of deportation to Khan’s former attorney. But the attorney—who was eventually sanctioned for malpractice in another case—never sent them on to Khan. Immigration officials also made mistakes. They failed to upload Khan’s fingerprints to a centralized database and never asked Khan directly during his naturalization interview if he had entered the United States under another identity.

Meanwhile, Khan learned English, met and married his wife, and applied for a green card and then citizenship. Along the way, he fulfilled all the legal requirements to obtain citizenship, filing documents with immigration officials and showing up at all his hearings, never imagining that he had any legal problems with his status.

As one of the government’s own witnesses explained at trial, Khan’s initial illegal entry did not disqualify him forever from obtaining legal status, especially after he married a U.S. citizen—a common path to a green card and then citizenship even for those with immigration violations in their past. The problem came because when he applied for citizenship, he did not tell immigration officials what he thought they already knew—that he arrived in the United States under another name. For this, the government argues, he can now be denaturalized.

By statute, citizenship obtained through naturalization can be revoked not only for fraud, but also in cases in which the individual, or even the government, makes an inadvertent error in the naturalization process. There is no statute of limitations in civil denaturalization cases, meaning that the government can take away citizenship decades after a person thought himself to be permanently an American. Nor does it matter if, like Khan, the individual has built an exemplary life in the United States, or that deportation would cause great hardship to U.S. citizen family members.

But these facts should matter to the government when choosing whom to target for denaturalization. Under a Department of Justice policy in place for many decades, denaturalization proceedings should not be brought against those who have been citizens for decades, have close ties to U.S. citizens, and have no criminal record—that is, men and women like Parvez Khan.

The government has provided no reason for abandoning that policy now. Timothy Belsan is chief of the National Security and Affirmative Litigation Unit at the Office of Immigration Litigation for the U.S. Department of Justice and one of the lawyers prosecuting Khan. But he refused to answer when asked why the government targeted Khan for denaturalization, referring the question to a government spokeswoman who then failed to respond to an emailed inquiry.

At stake is not only the fate of the individuals targeted, but also the status of America’s 20 million naturalized citizens. History shows we cannot blindly trust the government not to use the threat of denaturalization against disfavored racial, ethnic, and ideological minorities—either to strip them of citizenship or to threaten them into submission.

In the first half of the 20th century, the United States denaturalized 22,000 citizens—more than any other democracy. The government often targeted its ideological and political enemies, who were singled out after exercising their constitutionally protected rights of speech and protest. For example, the government successfully denaturalized and then deported the outspoken anarchist Emma Goldman in 1919, and unsuccessfully tried and failed to denaturalize labor leader Harry Bridges in two separate trials in the 1950s. The effect of that mass denaturalization campaign was to instill fear in every foreign-born American, some of whom chose to remain silent to avoid the same fate. Indeed, that was the point.

In its 1967 decision in Afroyim v. Rusk, the Supreme Court seemingly put an end to the government’s aggressive denaturalization campaign when it declared: “In our country the people are sovereign and the Government cannot sever its relationship to the people by taking away their citizenship.”

But the Court added a footnote explaining that the government was still permitted to strip citizenship if it could prove that naturalization had been “unlawfully procured.” For the next 50 years, the government abided by the spirit as well as the letter of that opinion, resorting to denaturalization only very rarely in cases of egregious fraud in the process.

But that has changed under President Trump. The administration has taken the broadest possible view of its power to denaturalize, taking away citizenship for even minor and inadvertent errors in the naturalization process on the grounds that they rendered it “unlawful.”

Take, for example, Baljinder Singh, an immigrant from India who is also among the first targets of Operation Janus . Singh has lived in the United States for 26 years, 12 of those as a U.S. citizen. Like Khan, he married an American, has no criminal record, and followed all the required legal steps to gain his citizenship. But after the government scoured its newly digitized fingerprint records, it discovered that a few months after Singh arrived in the United States as a teenager he was ordered deported under the name Davinder Singh—a misspelling of his first name that was more likely a typo or an interpreter’s error than an effort to commit fraud. As with Khan, the government’s own records suggest Singh never knew about the proceedings against him under a different name, and so never had a chance to clear up what may have been nothing more than a clerical error. Nonetheless, Singh was denaturalized last year.

As Singh’s and Khan’s cases show, all naturalized citizens are now at risk for having their status questioned, regardless of how long they have been citizens or how minuscule the error in the naturalization process. As in the past, the government appears to be using this broad power over naturalized citizens to target those it disfavors. Can it be coincidence that the first three civil cases filed under Operation Janus are all against people of color, and all from countries with a significant Muslim population—a group that President Trump has long disparaged?

Khan’s younger brother, also a naturalized citizen, learned this lesson when he took the stand as the final witness in Khan’s case. On cross-examination, government lawyers questioned Khan’s brother about his immigration history, inquiring about the dates and circumstances of his marriage, his green card, and his own citizenship application. Khan’s lawyer loudly objected that such questions are irrelevant and intended to intimidate the witness, but the Judge allowed them.

Perhaps Khan’s brother has now been added to the list of 700,000 naturalized citizens under investigation. As journalist and naturalized citizen Masha Gessen observed, naturalized citizens have lost their “assumption of permanence.” All 20 million must now live in perpetual fear that they will be next.

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