This is a guest post by Katharine Clark, Managing Attorney for Immigration at the Silver Spring, MD office of Ayuda. She has previously worked on citizenship and nationality issues at the U.S. Department of Justice. The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of any organization, employer, or agency.
On July 14, President Trump tweeted that four members of the House of Representatives – known as “The Squad” – should “go back” to “the crime-infested places from which they came.” The tweet targeted three representatives who were born in the United States, and one naturalized citizen, Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Given Omar’s naturalized status, it’s no accident that Trump and his supporters have settled on her as the long-term focus of their racist ire, chanting “Send her back!” at subsequent rallies beginning on July 17, in reference to Omar alone.
Much ink has already, rightly, been spilled about how Trump’s tweets and the crowd’s chants were racist, Islamophobic, detrimental to national rhetoric, and offensive to refugees and naturalized citizens. For example, the LA Times in July focused on how the racialized aspects of Trump’s immigration policies, including his denaturalization task force, are likely to suppress political opposition because these efforts are disproportionately concentrated in jurisdictions where naturalized citizens tend to vote Democratic. Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker explored how Trump’s rhetoric aligns with past efforts in the U.S. to make citizenship provisional for non-whites, U.S.-born and naturalized alike.
These are important points, but I believe there is another, more specific legal action that Trump may be proposing in his ongoing comments about Rep. Omar. He is not just using his tweets to energize his base in advance of the 2020 election. More particularly, I believe Trump and his followers are calling for Rep. Omar to be denaturalized and removed to Somalia.
The Legal Context of “Send Her Back”:
There are two ways to lose United States citizenship. Any U.S. citizen, born in this country or naturalized, can voluntarily renounce citizenship under 8 U.S.C. § 1481. However, renunciation requires a citizen to follow strict procedures for abandonment (it is also possible to lose citizenship after a conviction for treason or a similar criminal offense).
Unlike renunciation, which is initiated by the citizen, denaturalization is a civil action initiated by the federal government under 8 U.S.C. § 1451. To denaturalize a citizen against his or her wishes, a federal court must find that the citizen’s naturalization was illegally procured or procured by willful misrepresentation of material fact.
If a person willfully misrepresents a material fact on a naturalization application, or on the application for a green card that preceded the naturalization application as required under 8 U.S.C. § 1421(c), that misrepresentation can provide a basis for denaturalization many years later. Not only that, the consequences can pass from generation to generation. Under 8 U.S.C. § 1451(d), children who naturalized through their parents can be denaturalized if their parents are found to have procured their naturalization through willful misrepresentation of a material fact.
History of Denaturalization:
Historically, denaturalization actions have been extraordinarily rare. These cases were primarily instituted against war criminals, such as Nazi concentration camp guards, who hid their crimes when they applied for green cards or citizenship. The New York Times reported that from 2004 to 2016, the Justice Department initiated only 46 denaturalization cases.
Denaturalization cases are not only rare, but also difficult for the government to win. This is true by deliberate judicial design. In denaturalization cases, courts hold the government to a very high burden of proof and do not afford great deference to lower court findings of fact on appellate review. Baumgartner v. United States, 322 U.S. 665 (1944); United States v. Zajanckauskas, 441 F.3d 32, n.5 (1st Cir. 2006). As the Supreme Court explained, “rights once conferred should not be lightly revoked,” particularly where the right in question is as “precious” as citizenship. Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, 125 (1943).
Ultimately, then, denaturalization has long been reserved for people who told serious lies, often about their crimes against humanity, in order to become citizens. In other situations, citizenship has been treated as a settled question once naturalization occurs.
Denaturalization Task Force:
This trend began to shift in 2018, when the Trump administration created a denaturalization task force within United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, to review the A-files of naturalized citizens for previous fraud. In the first few months of its existence, the LA Times reports, the task force referred at least 100 cases to the Justice Department for initiation of a civil action.
In some ways, the administration’s focus on denaturalization is simply one small part of the United States’ long history of failing to respect citizenship rights. This history includes laws denying birthright citizenship to Americans of Chinese descent, and forced “repatriation” of US citizens of Mexican descent during the Great Depression.
However, Trump’s threat to Rep. Omar is also uniquely insidious. If Trump is, indeed, calling for Rep. Omar’s denaturalization, we are witnessing the chief executive of our nation, calling for the denaturalization of a duly elected representative on account of her race, religion, and political opinion. This is, to my knowledge, unprecedented.
Trump’s history of policy-making by tweet demonstrates why this threat is so serious and sinister. In this context, Trump’s tweet can be seen as a directive to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota, to USCIS, and to the Office of Immigration Litigation, to investigate and prosecute Rep. Omar for denaturalization. Ken Cuccinelli’s new role at the helm of USCIS does nothing to reassure me, given his 2008 attempt to repeal birthright citizenship while serving in the Virginia legislature, by calling for a Constitutional convention.
One’s opinion of Rep. Omar’s politics simply do not matter here. I have never seen her immigration file and I am not her attorney, so I have no specific insight into her case.
What is clear from press reports about her naturalization is that, if there were any problems with her immigration or naturalization, they would have occurred before she was old enough to play any meaningful part in the process. Media reports all indicate that Rep. Omar was born in 1982 in Mogadishu, came to the U.S. in 1992, received asylum in 1995, and naturalized in 2000 as a 17-year-old child.
This means that Trump is explicitly threatening, and implicitly assigning his task force to investigate, the possibility of bringing an extraordinarily rare denaturalization action, historically reserved for war criminals, against a political opponent based on immigration applications filed when she was a child.
If the Administration today threatens to denaturalize duly elected representatives, who have the protections of visibility, it will not only make all naturalized citizens provisional, and second-class under the law. It will also demonstrate the Administration’s full intention to use citizenship – by birth and naturalization alike – as a weapon of political war. If this does not make us concerned for the very foundations of our democracy, then we are not paying attention.