Monday, February 19

How the DOJ Silently Stripped a Brown Man of American Citizenship

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On January 5th, a federal judge in New Jersey ordered the revocation of US citizenship of a naturalized citizen named Baljinder Singh. According to the Department of Justice, Singh had misled immigration authorities by filing applications to adjust his immigration status under two different names—Baljinder Singh and Davinder Singh, in the process concealing that there was a final deportation order against him. Singh had been living as a member of American society since 1991. Now, 27 years later, he is suddenly no longer a citizen of the United States and could stand at risk of deportation.

Singh’s case was the first revocation of citizenship achieved as part of Operation Janus, and there could be many more to come.

Operation Janus is an effort to strip people of citizenship who in some cases, like that of Singh, have been Americans for decades. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is at the root of the program. During the Obama era, the OIG conducted an investigation into the issue of missing fingerprint records across several intelligence and law enforcement databases like the FBI. The rationale behind this study was the assertion that the lack of comprehensive fingerprinting databases created gaps in the system that allowed people like Baljinder Singh to slip under the immigration policing radar undetected.

According to an OIG report released in 2016, the policy around naturalization and denaturalizations are as follows:

“If USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] confirms that an applicant received a final deportation order under a different identity, and there are no other circumstances to provide eligibility, USCIS policy requires denial of naturalization. Also, USCIS may refer the applicant’s case to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for investigation. Likewise, if a naturalized citizen is discovered to have been ineligible for citizenship, ICE may investigate the circumstances and refer the case to the Department of Justice for revocation of citizenship.”

The investigation revealed 858 cases of immigrants naturalized by USCIS who would have been ineligible for citizenship had their fingerprints been available to conduct background and criminal record checks. The January 5th press release states that USCIS intends to refer 1600 more cases for prosecution. Altogether, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) states that it aggregated 315,000 cases in total where fingerprint records are missing, and the people of interest either have final orders of deportation or have criminal records or are fugitives. So, that means there are 315,000 people for whom fingerprint records are missing, and who may have illegitimately acquired citizenship, pending further investigation.

Let’s say, for hypothetical purposes, all of the two rounds of 858 and 1600 cases lead to denaturalizations. That is 2,458 people. The investigations that formed the basis for Operation Janus took place over a few years. For comparison, USCIS records show that 752,800 people became naturalized citizens in the fiscal year 2016, a single year. Even if all 315,000 people who ICE identified should ultimately be denaturalized, that’s a fraction of the millions of people that have been naturalized within the last decade.
In theory, if your country has a developed network of strict immigration policy, it is perhaps obvious that the agencies responsible would actually enforce the policies. In practice, though, what is the point of all this effort and expense?

So far, the first three cases filed in court thanks to Operation Janus are all directed against South Asian men— two of Pakistani background and one of Indian background. This isn’t a random coincidence; the report clearly states that the origins of Operation Janus derived from preliminary investigations around cases of naturalization granted to people from “special interest countries”:

“The DHS Counterterrorism Working Group coordinated with multiple DHS components to form a working group to address the problem of aliens from special interest countries receiving immigration benefits after changing their identities and concealing their final deportation orders. In 2010, DHS’ Office of Operations Coordination (OPS) began coordinating the Operation Janus working group.”

Special interest countries is a vague designation, but it means, essentially, countries that are considered a threat to US national security interests—read, presumed terrorism threats. Pakistan? Check. The OIG report also mentioned that the earliest investigations concerned cases of people from countries that shared borders with special interest countries. India? Check.

As the Washington Post reported when the OIG investigation results were first released in 2016, Trump administration officials ate it up. No surprise there. This policy is of a piece of US immigration enforcement policies post 9/11, that pre-date the Trump administration but fit its xenophobic ethos to a T: dehumanize, surveil, criminalize, remove. Rake up Islamophobia to serve and justify the means and ends.

Operation Janus is no longer running, but the wheels of prosecution are in motion for thousands, as mentioned. It’s unclear what is still to come as the efforts of this program bear fruit, but it’s something anyone concerned with ever-tightening immigration controls in the US should be worried about.

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