WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Wednesday that it had created an official section in its immigration office to strip citizenship rights from naturalized immigrants, a move that gives more heft to the Trump administration’s broad efforts to remove from the country 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,” Joseph H. Hunt, head of the Justice Department’s civil division, said in a statement.
“The Denaturalization Section will further the department’s efforts to pursue those who unlawfully obtained citizenship status and ensure that they are held accountable for their fraudulent conduct,” Hunt said.
The move promises to further 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 United States, and that immigrants should not assume that they cannot be deported even if they go through the naturalization process.
The new section will replace the 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.
The department has not announced who will lead the office, but several department officials and lawyers expected Timothy Belsan, who has taken the lead on the department’s denaturalization work, to assume that role. Belsan 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.
The Justice Department under President Barack Obama also pursued denaturalizations, and it targeted people who had lied on their applications and committed other crimes.
But denaturalizations have ramped up under the Trump administration: Of the 228 denaturalization cases that the department has filed since 2008, about 40% of them were filed since 2017, according to official department numbers.
And over the past three years, denaturalization case referrals to the department have increased 600%.
From the earliest days of the Trump administration, officials including Stephen Miller, the White House aide who has driven much of President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, said denaturalization could be used as part of a broad pushback on immigration.
Some Justice Department immigration lawyers have expressed worries that denaturalizations could be broadly used to strip citizenship, according to two lawyers who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
They cite the fact that the department can pursue denaturalization lawsuits against people who commit fraud, as it did against four people who lied about being related to become U.S. citizens. Fraud can be broadly defined, and include smaller infractions like misstatements on the citizenship application.
But a Justice Department official said the new section would prioritize people who have committed serious violations of law.
When the department announced the new section, it cited successful denaturalization cases including a naturalized citizen who had recruited for al-Qaida in the United States and one who had sexually abused a 7-year-old family member.