The Justice Department created a section in its immigration office to strip citizenship rights from naturalized immigrants, a move that the New York Times says gives more heft to the Trump administration’s efforts to remove immigrants who have committed crimes. The Denaturalization Section “underscores the department’s commitment to bring justice to terrorists, war criminals, sex offenders and other fraudsters who illegally obtained naturalization,” said Joseph Hunt, head of DOJ’s civil division. The move promises to expand a practice that was once used infrequently, but that the Trump administration has increasingly turned to as part of its immigration crackdown. It has raised alarms among some department lawyers who fear denaturalization lawsuits could be used against immigrants who have not committed serious crimes.
Critics say that the administration’s desire to prioritize denaturalizations underscores the idea that naturalized citizens have fewer rights than those born in the U.S. and that immigrants should not assume that they cannot be deported even if they go through the naturalization process. The new section will replace a team of immigration lawyers who have been asked to focus on cases that revoke citizenship from those who have been convicted of terrorism, war crimes, human rights violations and sex offenses. Timothy Belsan, who has taken the lead on the department’s denaturalization work, is expected to lead the office. He helped to revoke the citizenship rights of a Yugoslavian-born convicted war criminal who omitted from her naturalization application the fact that she had executed unarmed civilians during the 1990s Balkan conflicts. Of the 228 denaturalization cases that the department has filed since 2008, about 40 percent were filed since the Trump administration took office.