The US agency that oversees immigration applications has hired dozens of new attorneys and officials to go after immigrants suspected of obtaining their citizenship illegally.
L Francis Cissna, the director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said his department was staffing up to target people who had used fake identities to get green cards and become naturalised citizens after previously being ordered deported.
The agency will refer these cases to the Department of Justice, whose attorneys will attempt to strip these people of their citizenship through the courts, Mr Cissna said – a process known as “denaturalisation”. They may also press criminal charges.
“We finally have a process in place to get to the bottom of all these bad cases and start denaturalising people who should not have been naturalized in the first place,” he told the Associated Press.
At least 858 immigrants were granted citizenship after being previously deported under different names, according to a 2016 inspector general report. The Department of Justice has filed only 305 civil denaturalisation cases since 1990, according to statistics obtained by Kansas immigration attorney Matthew Hoppock.
David Leopold, an Ohio-based immigration attorney, said these statistics prove that the naturalisation of citizens under fake identities is not a widespread problem. The citizenship application process, he said, already has multiple checks in place for catching false documents and applications.
USCIS’s new policy, he added, “only serves the purpose of this administration to put a question mark next to every immigrant”.
“They’re trying to conflate crime and immigration, and this is just the next step,” he told The Independent.
Mr Leopold also noted that denaturalisation is a civil proceeding, not a criminal one, in which the accused is not guaranteed a lawyer to defend them. He feared some immigrants might offer to give up their citizenship rather than take on the US government in court alone.
“It puts the government in a position where they can coerce people into giving up their citizenship,” he said.
Michael Bars, a USCIS spokesman, said the new efforts will be based out of the agency’s office in southern California. Officials will only refer cases to the Justice Department in which people who had been ordered removed “intentionally use multiple identities in order to defraud the government and the American people to obtain citizenship”.
“As a critical part of the USCIS mission, USCIS strives to combat instances of fraud, abuse and other nefarious activities threatening the integrity of our nation’s immigration system and its faithful execution under the rule of law,” Mr Bars said.
Just this month, a US citizen born in Haiti was ordered denaturalised after applying for and receiving US citizenship under a fake identity. Prosecutors said Enite Alindor applied for asylum under a fake name in 1997, after an application under her legal name was denied. She was naturalised as a citizen in 2012.
Ms Alinor was sentenced to five months in federal prison for making false statements in a matter relating to naturalisation and citizenship last week.
“Citizenship is the greatest immigration benefit our country can bestow,” James C Spero, the Tampa special agent in charge, said at the time. “HSI and our partners, like USCIS, will continue working together to protect the integrity of our legal immigration system and the opportunities it provides.”
The changes at USCIS come as the Trump administration steps up its war on illegal immigration, sending federal troops to the border and announcing a new policy that will result in more immigrant families being separated upon entry.
This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that domestic violence and gang violence would no longer be considered grounds for asylum. Advocates estimated the decision could result in tens of thousands of immigrants being denied protection.
“This is an all-out war on immigrants,” Mr Leopold said. “Whether they’ve come here without documents, whether they obtain their documents while they are here, or now, whether they are US citizens.”