A Justice Department official said the new section would prioritize naturalized Americans who have committed serious violations of law, but critics worry denaturalization could be used broadly.
The Trump administration opened a new front in its war on immigrants last week, announcing a new office in the Department of Justice dedicated solely to stripping citizenship rights from naturalized immigrants.
The Justice Department announced the opening of the new section on Wednesday and said it would join the department’s existing immigration office and target terrorists, sex offenders, and other criminals who illegally obtained naturalization.
“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,” 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.”
The DOJ has previously only used denaturalization in rare instances and largely focused on prosecuting those who jeopardized national security, but the New York Times reports that the new section has “raised alarms among some department lawyers who fear denaturalization lawsuits could be used against immigrants who have not committed serious crimes.”
These attorneys expressed concerns that denaturalizations could be used broadly to strip citizenship, citing the fact that the DOJ can pursue denaturalization lawsuits against people who commit fraud—a charge that could possibly be defined to include small infractions such as inaccuracies on citizenship applications.
Immigration advocates and civil rights groups expressed similar concerns and said the new section would create fear among the 23 million naturalized American citizens.
“This new Department of Justice unit, focused solely on stripping Americans of their citizenship, confirms that Trump’s systematic campaign against people of color extends from our borders to the rest of the nation,” said Manar Waheed, senior legislative and advocacy counsel for the ACLU. “His effort to create an environment of fear and insecurity is chilling. That is not the America we want to be.”
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights also blasted the announcement and Democratic lawmakers joined advocacy groups in criticizing the new “Denaturalization Section.”
Waheed of the ACLU also noted that the current administration has filed more than twice as many civil denaturalization cases each year compared to the last eight administrations’ yearly averages.
Trump officials have substantially ramped up denaturalization proceedings. Of the 228 denaturalization cases that the department has filed since 2008, 94 of them (41%) have been filed since 2017, a DOJ official told CNN. The number of decriminalization case referrals to the DOJ has also surged by 600% since 2017.
A Justice Department official told the New York Times that the new section would prioritize naturalized citizens who have committed serious violations of law, but that reassurance may ring hollow, given the Trump administration’s over-arching immigration policy over the past three years.
Since taking office, President Trump has issued multiple travel bans targeting travelers from Muslim-majority countries, separated children for their parents along the southern border, instituted an “immigrant wealth test,” drastically reduced the number of refugees the country accepts, and forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while decisions are made on their applications.
In a bit of good news for immigration advocates, Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy was blocked by a federal court on Friday. The court ruled that asylum seekers must be allowed into the United States while their cases go through American immigration courts. The administration is all but certain to appeal the decision though, and the case could wind its way to the Supreme Court.