By Rekha Basu/Washington
So we have now arrived at this ugly place in the evolving American story, where President Trump is on a witch hunt to strip citizenship from already naturalised Americans.
In Trump’s America, it seems no promise made to citizens is now too big or too consequential to be broken.
We’re not talking here about efforts to turn back or separate undocumented newcomer families seeking asylum at the border. We’re not talking about holding children in cages. We’re not even talking about the push to set new limits on the number of legal immigrants to the United States, including Trump’s expressed wish to end the visa lottery programme and some family-based immigration. All of those measures are wrongheaded but some would at least require congressional action.
We’re talking about a new effort being launched solely at the president’s discretion to take away citizenship rights from people who already have them. These are otherwise law-abiding citizens who went through the appropriate process of becoming legal, permanent residents or “green-card” holders before being eligible to apply for citizenship. Then they waited years more, passed their citizenship tests, paid their fees and took the oath. Now they could be denaturalised and deported if they are found to have ever used a fake ID to get into the country.
A new office within the US Citizenship and Immigration Services is charged with investigating thousands of old fingerprint records and files to that end. It will be seeking out false statements people may have made while applying to become legal residents, namely denying they were deported.
“Homeland Security investigators are digitising fingerprints collected in the 1990s and comparing them with more recent prints provided by foreigners who apply for legal residency and US citizenship,” reported The Washington Post. “If decades-old fingerprints gathered during a deportation match those of someone who did not disclose that deportation on their naturalisation application or used a different name, that individual could be targeted by a new Los Angeles-based investigative division.”
The director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, L Francis Cissna, said in a memo that the agency was hiring several dozen lawyers and immigration officers to review any cases of immigrants who got naturalised after having used fraudulent documents to get around past deportation orders. He said the Department of Justice could choose to launch citizenship-removal civil court cases or criminal charges related to fraud.
It has to be asked: Where is the federal government’s responsibility for not doing its due diligence at the time? Shouldn’t it have screened out ineligible applicants when they applied, rather than decades later, when those people have likely renounced other citizenship? Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on dredging this up?
And what makes it a pressing priority now, when we have so many others? The denaturalisation process has been around for a while, but reportedly, has long been treated as a rare and drastic measure to take against immigrants who committed heinous crimes or fraud, or were national-security threats. Forging an ID to enter the country hardly meets that criteria. The director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University law school told NBC News officials began reviewing cases near the end of the Obama administration but prioritised naturalised citizens who had gotten security clearances for work in sensitive government posts.
So why now? Maybe because this administration (perhaps borrowing a cue from Iowa’s US Congressman Steve King) has found it pays politically to go after brown-skinned and Spanish-speaking immigrants. And when “someone else’s babies,” as King puts it, can vote, that poses a political threat, so there must be a way to get them out.
There is even growing concern that immigrants lawfully receiving public benefits could see their citizenship revoked or be denied legal permanent residence. Though the USCIS website says lawful permanent residents (“green-card” holders) cannot be denied citizenship for getting public benefits, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation fact sheet, draft proposed rules say that in determining immigration status, the federal government may consider it. It could look at whether the individual currently gets such benefits or has in the last two years, and even if dependent family members, including a citizen child, have used them.
Some news reports have said using public benefits could even be grounds for denaturalisation. New York Magazine has reported the new rules could make “use of a broad variety of public benefit programmes grounds for not granting citizenship or actually being deported, even for people who follow all of the rules of legal immigration.” And Reuters reported officials “could look at whether the applicant has enrolled a child in government preschool programmes or received subsidies for utility bills or health insurance premiums.”
It’s bad enough for our head of state to try and divide Americans into which ones got their citizenship by happenstance of birth, and which ones chose it, ignoring any past infractions of the former while harshly penalising the latter. Most who chose it worked hard toward that end, pay taxes, served in the armed forces, take jobs others don’t want or lack the skills for, vote and exercise our civic duties in many ways.
But it’s really unconscionable to pit immigrants who have means against those who struggle. It will likely discourage some from getting the help their children depend on, and to which they’re entitled.
This is a far cry from the America envisioned in the magnificent Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Don’t settle for this America, folks. Fight to get back the one that has a heart. – Tribune News Serrvice
* Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.
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