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 the Trump administration has taken steps to increase investigations of U.S. citizens for the purpose of stripping them of their citizenship, sometimes called “denaturalization.”
This is a worrying attack on naturalized citizenship. Other Trump administration policies, like the increase in large-scale immigration raids, also threaten naturalized citizens. They may face months or years of detention as they struggle to prove their citizenship to ICE’s satisfaction. This fits into President Trump’s pattern of attacks on immigrants and other minority groups — one of our key markers of democratic decline.
President-elect Trump even suggested stripping people of their citizenship for political speech:
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
Flag-burning is, of course, 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, almost all in cases involving war criminals, terrorists, or spies.
And large-scale denaturalization projects have a troubling history. In the early 20th century, the U.S. government removed citizenship from people it deemed 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 or that sought to strip citizenship from political opponents. Turkey, for example, last year instituted denaturalization proceedings against exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen and other critics of the Erdogan regime.
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.