People who have naturalized to U.S. citizenship can be denaturalized, or stripped of their citizenship, in two ways. First, the U.S. Attorney’s Office may bring criminal charges against the individual under 18 U.S.C. 1425, for unlawful procurement of citizenship. Anyone convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. 1425 automatically will have their U.S. citizenship revoked by the same federal court hearing the criminal case. However, there is a ten-year statute of limitations on criminal prosecution for illegally obtaining citizenship.
Second, the Office of Immigration Litigation (OIL) of the Civil Division of the Department of Justice may bring civil proceedings in federal court for denaturalization under 8 U.S.C. 1451(a). There is no time limit on bringing a civil denaturalization suit, and so a person could have been a U.S. citizen for decades prior to the commencement of denaturalization proceedings.
Once a person is denaturalized, they revert to being a permanent resident. However, their troubles are not over. ICE will then initiate removal proceedings against them and try to deport them.
In addition to the US Attorney’s Office and the US Department of Justice, ICE and USCIS are involved in investigations of possible denaturalization cases too. ICE attorneys from the Central Revocation Unit (CRU) of the Office of Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA) also pursue denaturalization cases and coordinate with the US Attorneys Offices and OIL.
ICE has decided to take the lead in denaturalization. In 2009, the Obama administration realized that in certain cases, fingerprint cards had not been digitized and checked against DHS records before naturalization. The Operation Janus program was created to compared those fingerprints against prior files, and ICE discovered that some people had removal orders, and created a list of cases for denaturalization.
According to the fiscal year 2019 ICE budget, ICE currently has 887 leads for the Operation Janice program, and they are focusing on denaturalization of individuals from “special interest countries”, meaning Muslim. More recently, ICE has created another new program, Operation Second Look, and are pulling naturalization files after running algorithms to try to select cases. There are now about 700 cases that they want to review for denaturalization.
In 2017, the Trump administration also created a new office within USCIS focused on denaturalization. The Trump administration as taken money away from the adjudications budget, about $207 million, and diverted it towards their denaturalization project. This loss of funding has caused a slow down in adjudications of naturalization cases, cause money being taken for other reasons.
DHS plans to hire 300 additional agents to investigate and prepare denaturalization cases, as well as 212 support staff.
In Maslenjak v. U.S., 582 U.S. __(2017), the Supreme Court held that not any misrepresentation is enough to convict someone of illegal procurement of naturalization in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a). The government must prove that the defendant’s illegal act played a role in his or her acquisition of citizenship. Thus, violations of law that had nothing to do with obtaining citizenship cannot be used to convict someone of illegal procurement of U.S. citizenship.