Homeland Security is circulating a draft proposal that would severely curtail the department’s attempts to strip citizenship from people who were naturalized based on fraud.
The memo, which according to the draft seen by The Washington Times is from Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to the heads of the three immigration agencies, says the department fears 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 part of federal law. It requires a court order, and can be done 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 crimes convicts or human rights violators, or cases of fraud “with aggravating factors.”
Current cases the department is already pursuing could be canceled under the new 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, who was policy chief at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Trump administration, said the language in the memo is so restrictive it means “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 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 currently 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 cases, but imposes a list of criteria to weed out cases, including whether the bogus citizen had a lawyer at the time, whether they have family who rely on them, or if they have “medical issues.”
The draft proposal would likely not stop denaturalization efforts against major human-rights abusers 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, actual efforts to strip citizenship have been relatively rare, averaging only about a dozen cases a year in the Bush and Obama years. That rose to at least 30 cases in 2017, according to the National Immigration Forum.
That followed a 2016 inspector general’s report identifying hundreds of people who had been previously deported, snuck back in, and were granted citizenship under a new identity.
USCIS had missed flagging their cases because the fingerprint cards from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the deportation agency, were still in paper form and weren’t being checked.
After the inspector general’s probe USCIS did a broader review and found still more cases.
In 2018 the agency established a denaturalization task force in Los Angeles, and the agency’s then-director 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 both the Homeland Security task force and the Justice Department section, and if Mr. Mayorkas does sign off on the new proposal, he would 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 actually began increasing in the Obama administration, and some of the key players in the new draft proposal were around for those previous efforts.
That includes Mr. Mayorkas, who was head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and then deputy secretary at the full Homeland Security Department, and Ur Jaddou, the new USCIS director, was also at the agency as chief counsel from 2014 to 2017.
She was asked during her confirmation hearing this year whether she supported the work of the Trump-era denaturalization task force, and she said 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 did keep up with the subject while out of office, including giving a lengthy interview to WNYC’s “The Takeaway” program in 2018 where she expressed concern over the task force and said it was part of a Trump effort to scare potential new 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 already 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 the staff have all been reassigned, he said.
The Washington Times reached out to USCIS for comment on the status of the task force and on Ms. Jaddou’s past comments on denaturalization.