DOJ creates section dedicated to reviewing denaturalization cases

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A new U.S. citizen holds a flag to his chest during the Pledge of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library, July 3, 2018, in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A new U.S. citizen holds a flag to his chest during the Pledge of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library, July 3, 2018, in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it’s dedicating a section of its workforce to review denaturalization cases — a move that’s likely to worry immigrant advocates who’ve expressed concern about the administration stripping citizenship from Americans.

The latest move by the Justice Department is in line with broader administration efforts to investigate cases where individuals are believed to have illegally obtained US citizenship.

“When a terrorist or sex offender becomes a U.S. citizen under false pretenses, it is an affront to our system –and it is especially offensive to those who fall victim to these criminals,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt said in a statement. “The Denaturalization Section will further the Department’s efforts to pursue those who unlawfully obtained citizenship status and ensure that they are held accountable for their fraudulent conduct.”

While previous administrations have launched initiatives to investigate the circumstances under which an individual has obtained US citizenship, immigrant advocates have called into question the standards used by the Trump administration to investigate those cases.

Still, denaturalizations are rare and can only occur in federal court. The Justice Department has filed 228 civil denaturalization cases since 2008, according to a DOJ official. Of the 228 cases, 94 were filed over roughly the last three years, indicating a recent jump in filings, the official said.

Historically, the US revoked citizenship for a range of reasons, including lying about date of arrival, age or marital status to political reasons, according to Patrick Weil, a professor at Yale Law School who focuses on immigration and citizenship.

During World War II, for example, the US reviewed naturalization cases of German Americans who were pro-Nazi. “They were targeting people working for the Nazis, so they went after many German Americans,” Weil said.

But, Weil noted, it’s become increasingly difficult for the US to strip someone of their citizenship, because of Supreme Court decisions that have curtailed the government’s power.

A 2016 Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report found that at least 858 individuals were granted US citizenship despite having been ordered deported under a different identity, because of incomplete fingerprint records.

In previous years, DHS had also found instances in which individuals received immigration benefits after changing their identities and concealing their deportation orders. The coordinated effort to identify those cases came to be known as Operation Janus.

In 2018, US Citizenship and Immigration Services — an immigration agency within the Department of Homeland Security — announced it was creating an office to review cases and then refer them to the Justice Department, which is able to pursue denaturalization proceedings against citizens. The Justice Department’s new denaturalization section appears to be an extension of that effort.

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