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FOIA to USCIS on Denaturalization

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In recent decades, one of America’s greatest strengths has been its ability to assimilate new immigrant groups, granting citizenship to new arrivals and conferring citizenship on their American-born children from birth. With citizenship comes political power and a sense of permanent membership in the national community. But recent steps by the Trump administration to increase denaturalization investigations risk delegitimizing the status of naturalized citizens, and may chill their political activities. This fits into President Trump’s pattern of attacks on immigrants and other minority groups — one of the key markers of democratic decline.

Shortly after the 2016 election, now-President Trump indicated an appetite for politically-motivated denaturalizations, tweeting on November 29, 2016, that flag-burning should be punished by “loss of citizenship or year in jail.” (Flag-burning is, of course, political speech protected by the First Amendment.) Current Supreme Court precedent likely forecloses stripping citizenship on this basis alone. But the administration’s decision to create an office dedicated solely to identifying denaturalization cases raises serious concerns about how its targets will be identified and why the administration has chosen to prioritize denaturalization now.

The law allows naturalized citizens to be stripped of their citizenship — generally, if the citizen’s immigration paperwork was somehow fraudulent — but it is an extremely unusual punishment in modern American history. Since 1990, the Department of Justice has initiated just a few hundred civil denaturalization cases, many against former Nazis or other war criminals. In these exceptional cases, there may be good reasons to pursue denaturalization.

But large-scale denaturalization projects have a more troubling history. In the early 20th century, the U.S. government used denaturalization to target naturalized citizens who were later determined to be “un-American” — for example, because they were of Asian descent, because they were Socialists or Communists, or because they opposed American participation in World War I. Denaturalization campaigns are also a common feature of authoritarian states that have scapegoated minority groups as part of their rise to power. Beginning in 1933, Nazi Germany implemented a series of policies authorizing the denaturalization of Jewish Germans as well as political opponents of the Nazis. Likewise, the Soviet Union revoked the citizenship of 1.5 million citizens.

Protect Democracy is committed to pushing back against President Trump’s efforts to delegitimize minority communities. To that end, we’ve filed a FOIA request for information on our government’s plans for a denaturalization office and how it plans to identify potential denaturalization cases.

Read the FOIA request here.

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