The Homeland Security Department is circulating a draft proposal that would severely curtail its attempts to strip citizenship from people who were naturalized based on fraud.
The Washington Times saw a draft of the memo, from Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to the heads of the three immigration agencies. The memo says people might not apply for citizenship because they worry about losing it in the future.
“Naturalized citizens deserve finality and security in their rights as citizens,” the memo says. “Department policies should not cause a chilling effect or barriers for lawful permanent residents seeking to naturalize.”
Denaturalization is a part of federal law. It requires a court order and can be filed either as the result of a criminal case or a civil lawsuit.
The memo says the department should limit its denaturalization cases to instances of national security threats, major felons such as sex crime convicts or human rights violators, or cases of fraud “with aggravating factors.”
Cases the department is currently pursuing could be canceled under the draft memo.
The memo seems aimed at unwinding a Trump-era push to discover and cancel citizenship for people who were wrongly approved, in some cases because of agency errors but in many cases because they had criminal records or obtained citizenship by fraudulent means.
Robert Law, a policy chief at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Trump administration, said the memo’s language is so restrictive that “no one will be pursuing civil denaturalization cases.”
“By this policy, Mayorkas is saying that citizenship really is meaningless and that immigration fraud is rewarded,” said Mr. Law, now the director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Homeland Security didn’t respond to messages seeking comment this week.
The undated memo is marked “DRAFT” and “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY.” Mr. Law said it has been circulated and is awaiting a decision from Mr. Mayorkas.
It is directed at USCIS, Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which combine to form the backbone of the country’s immigration service.
The memo doesn’t ban denaturalization but imposes a list of criteria to weed out cases, including whether bogus citizens had attorneys at the time, whether they have family that relies on them or whether they have “medical issues.”
The draft proposal would likely not stop denaturalization efforts against prominent human rights violators or war criminals, such as cases stemming from the former Yugoslavia.
Instead, it’s likely to protect more run-of-the-mill bogus citizenship cases.
Even then, efforts to strip citizenship have averaged only about a dozen a year during the Bush and Obama administrations. That rose to at least 30 cases in 2017, according to the National Immigration Forum.
A 2016 inspector general’s report identified hundreds of people who had been deported, sneaked back into the U.S. and were granted citizenship under new identities.
USCIS did not flag their cases because the fingerprint cards from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the deportation agency, were in paper form and weren’t being checked.
After the inspector general’s probe, USCIS conducted a broader review and found even more cases.
In 2018, the agency established a denaturalization task force in Los Angeles. The agency’s director at the time said he expected “potentially a few thousand cases” to be sent to the Justice Department for denaturalization.
In 2020, the Justice Department announced a new section dedicated to denaturalization cases.
Immigrant rights advocates complained bitterly about the Homeland Security task force and the Justice Department section. If Mr. Mayorkas signs off on the proposal, he will be complying with their demands.
Those advocates see denaturalization as part of an “invisible wall” limiting the ability of legal immigration during the Trump administration, along with policies prodding legal immigrants to be self-sufficient, and a new focus on enforcement at USCIS.
Mr. Law, though, said the only people who needed to fear denaturalization were those who should never have obtained it in the first place.
Denaturalization efforts began increasing in the Obama administration. Some of the key players in the current draft proposal were in the picture.
That includes Mr. Mayorkas, who was head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and then deputy secretary at the full Homeland Security Department. Ur M. Jaddou, now USCIS director, was chief counsel at the agency from 2014 to 2017.
Ms. Jaddou was asked during her confirmation hearing this year whether she supported the work of the Trump-era denaturalization task force. She brushed aside the question, saying she hadn’t been in office for four years and needed to “carefully review and assess USCIS findings and actions since 2017.”
Yet Ms. Jaddou kept up with the subject while out of office. She gave a lengthy interview in 2018 to WNYC’s “The Takeaway” program, where she expressed concern about the task force and said it was part of a Trump effort to scare potential citizens.
“My concern is why all the public notice? What is the issue? Why are you publicly doing this now?” she said in the interview.
Mr. Law said the Biden team has hollowed out the task force set up to pursue the cases stemming from the inspector general’s investigation. The Los Angeles office is vacant, and staff members have been reassigned, he said.
The Washington Times reached out to USCIS for comment about the status of the task force and on Ms. Jaddou’s past comments on denaturalization.