DOJ Creates a New Civil Denaturalization Prosecutions Unit

Where will the cases come from, if DHS agencies are not on board?

By Dan Cadman on February 27, 2020

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has announced creation of a unit to specialize in the prosecution of civil denaturalization cases. Civil denaturalization is provided for in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) at 8 U.S.C. Section 1451. This is the same section of law that was used successfully for decades to strip citizenship from Nazis who, in the chaos of post-World War II, fraudulently changed identities or hid their backgrounds, immigrated to the United States, and thereafter naturalized.

Buzzfeed promptly produced an article decrying the move, as is evident from its subhead: "Experts said the move appeared to be another symbolic effort aimed at targeting immigrants." It goes on to make sweeping assertions with no empirical facts to back them up: "The move will likely inspire increased fear in immigrant communities already on edge over the Trump administration's immigration restrictions." Hardly likely. Why would all but a few naturalization aspirants fear getting caught up in a web designed to catch spies, terrorists, human rights abusers, and serial offenders?

As to the "experts"? Only one person is cited, a policy analyst at the Center for Migration Studies, who is quoted as saying:

"While this effort may result in relatively few denaturalizations, it shows that the administration's desire to keep immigrants 'looking over their shoulder' extends past legalization and even naturalization. If you weren't born here, this administration is trying to keep you uncomfortable."

What makes this policy analyst an expert in the highly complex and specialized field of denaturalization? And does she therefore suggest that there should be no systematic effort taken to correct misuse and abuse of the naturalization process by the worst of the worst? The kinds of villains who have more recently engaged in naturalization fraud are succinctly outlined in the press release that DOJ issued to announce the decision, and range from terrorists and spies, to sex offenders and pedophiles, to modern-day war criminals. They are the kinds of individuals who should fear exposure and denaturalization by a dedicated unit.

We at the Center for Immigration Studies have long been strong advocates of the use of civil and criminal denaturalization in appropriate cases — both of which in the past have gotten short shrift, even when it is painfully obvious to a reasonably alert observer that any number of miscreants have scammed our system to obtain entry and move as quickly as possible to put themselves out of deportation's reach by procuring citizenship. (See, e.g., here, here, here, and here.) Creation of the new unit is additional proof (if more were needed) that Attorney General Barr is a man who takes his job responsibilities seriously, and who recognizes the importance of maintaining integrity in our immigration and naturalization processes, from which so many important things flow.

A couple of serious cautionary notes, though, because you can't just create a unit and declare "mission accomplished":

First, as mentioned previously, there are parallel tracks that denaturalization can take, through both civil and criminal processes. The latter is provided for at 18 U.S.C. Section 1425, which carries penalties ranging from 15 to 25 years in prison depending on the fact circumstances under which the naturalization is illegally procured. Creation of the new unit will not result in increased criminal prosecutions (for naturalization fraud by terrorists, for instance) because its sole focus is on the civil remedies. This is a shame. If the government is to expend resources in bringing denaturalization cases to court, some portion of that time, effort and money should go to instituting criminal charges in the most egregious cases.

Second, creation of the unit doesn't guarantee that there will be a pipeline of cases to feed it. This will primarily rely on agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, specifically U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There is a great deal of dysfunction within, and between, the two organizations, which work well in the sandbox together on practically nothing (see here and here).

The Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division at ICE, responsible (as the name implies) for the investigative work that might feed either the civil or criminal denaturalization processes, has been notoriously loath to engage in any kind of immigration or citizenship investigations for reasons that I've discussed at length in other posts. The leaders at HSI fancy themselves "above" the immigration fray, most having come from the Customs Service side of the shotgun marriage that ICE represents. For this reason, absent a mandate from above, it seems unlikely that priority emphases will shift that result in ensuring a steady flow of work products that might feed the new unit.

As for USCIS, which is the agency that grants the naturalization in the first place — including to all of the sundry villains previously mentioned — it has been hammered mercilessly for vetting failures in its naturalization adjudication procedures, which is, of course, a prime reason that so many of those villains managed to get so far as to take the oath of citizenship. After a watchdog exposé revealed that potentially thousands of ineligible aliens had gamed the system and gotten naturalized, USCIS, reeling from the shock, established its own denaturalization units at headquarters and in the field. According to the most recent available budget data, USCIS now has more than 70 full-time equivalent staff responsible for denaturalization investigations and referrals, including immigration officers, attorneys, and Fraud Detection-National Security (FDNS) staff.

The problem is, quite simply, that USCIS business practices and workflow for this program are poor at best and, intentionally or not, designed more to show the illusion of movement than actual outcome. Most of the managers of the project at field office level have neither investigative nor denaturalization experience in their backgrounds; the FDNS staff officers have been reduced to computer systems checkers with little or no influence over the "investigations" being conducted; the immigration officers who actually handle the docket of cases are in fact recycled immigration adjudicators of exactly the type who erroneously granted so many of the naturalizations under inquiry in the first place; and the attorneys assigned — like the managers — have no substantive denaturalization experience and, worse, are in the main new hires with little immigration experience of any kind.

All of this is a recipe for disaster, and it does not appear that USCIS leaders at the headquarters level fully comprehend, or are paying attention to, what is essentially a slow-moving train wreck. This must change. DOJ has made the commitment; it's past time that DHS Main Office get involved and do likewise by casting a keen eye toward both USCIS's and ICE's commitment to protecting the integrity of the nation's greatest gift to immigrants: the gift of citizenship.