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The Trump Administration Is Using an Under-the-Radar Tactic to Suppress Votes

4 minute read
Azadeh Shahshahani is legal and advocacy director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild

The closer we get to the election, the more President Donald Trump is determined to block people from casting their ballots. Trump has equated mail-in ballots with voter fraud, said he won’t fund the post office ahead of the election and begun a widespread campaign of voter intimidation.

These should be cause enough for concern, but one tactic that has been flying under the radar is this Administration’s denaturalization campaign, ensuring that some Americans won’t be able to vote at all.

The Administration has been engaged in the systematic crackdown on immigrants of color since Trump took office. These efforts paint naturalized citizens like me as second-class, and with the Department of Justice’s creation of a Denaturalization Section, it is likely to get far worse.

To understand the full scope of what’s happening, it’s critical to understand the history of denaturalization. Between 1960 and 2000, cases of denaturalization were rarely filed and were applied to alleged Nazis and war criminals. But things have changed with the digitization of immigration files from the 1990s — cases from 30 years ago can be brought under investigation and petitioned for denaturalization. In revocation of one’s citizenship through a civil proceeding, the person is not afforded the right to counsel, right to a jury trial or a statute of limitations.

In 2010, following denaturalization efforts begun under President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama launched Operation Janus to investigate immigrants who were ordered deported and suspected of obtaining citizenship under a false identity. The Obama Administration also started an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program called Operation Second Look, which sought to identify cases where people had become naturalized despite deportation orders or concerns about past fraud and criminality.

But Trump has taken this all to a new level.

In 2016, the Department of Justice filed 15 denaturalization cases in federal court. By January 2017, Janus and Second Look were reviewing about 315,000 immigration cases, and the Department of Homeland Security planned to refer 120 cases to the DOJ to face potential denaturalization charges. The DOJ filed at least 30 cases in 2017. In January 2018, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of DHS, announced its intent to refer another 1,600 cases. By the summer of 2018, USCIS had flagged about 2,500 cases of those identified by Janus and Second Look to conduct an in-depth review of, and had referred at least 110 cases to the DOJ to prosecute.

Current denaturalization cases disproportionately affect Black and brown citizens. In 2017 and 2018, people with origins in Mexico, Haiti and Nigeria had the highest rates of denaturalization. Almost half of denaturalized people came from a “special interest country,” meaning that they were specifically targeted due to their country’s predominant race, ethnicity or religion.

The case of Parvez Khan is illustrative. Khan is a Pakistani immigrant in his 60s who has been living in the U.S. for about 30 years. He has been a citizen since 2006 but was targeted for denaturalization after the government argued that he failed to disclose a previous deportation order – an order that he said he wasn’t even aware of. There are many others like him.

It is clear that the denaturalization scheme is about reshaping the demographics of this country, namely making America more white. But it is also about dictating who will cast their vote in the elections and who will determine the political future of this country. Beyond its initiative to strip people of their citizenship, the government has prevented tens of thousands of immigrants from becoming citizens — naturalization ceremonies and interviews were delayed due to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services closures during the pandemic, and USCIS declined to make remote options a possibility.

In other words, months before an election, immigrants are being shut out of the election process.

While denaturalization efforts may not affect the same number of people as voter-roll purges or felony disenfranchisement, the issue is no less important. The attacks on naturalized citizens reinforce the notion that immigrants — that is, Black and brown immigrants — will never belong and are forever suspect. The effort at systematic denaturalization is abhorrent and must end.

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