This year’s carefully staged, semi-virtual Republican National Convention (RNC) featured footage of President Donald Trump performing a naturalization ceremony in the White House, politicizing what is a sacred right of passage for immigrants. But even as he inducted five hand-picked immigrants into full citizenship and showered them with praise, he has gone out of his way to dismantle the citizenship program for hundreds of thousands of others.
Two of the immigrants did not know until minutes before the ceremony that Trump would attend much less that it would be later aired at the RNC. They subsequently said they didn’t mind, but it would have been nice to at least give them the option of exercising their newfound political freedom and letting them have a say in whether they wanted to be used as props for the president’s re-election campaign. In his remarks, Trump himself pointed out that the immigrants had “followed the rules” and “obeyed the laws” and earned the right to become citizens. But what he didn’t mention was just how hard he was working to prevent others from getting to the same place—including doubling the naturalization fee (from $640 to $1,160) and the processing time. That, however, is the least of it.
To date, Trump has not only cracked down on unauthorized immigration—ratcheting up enforcement both at the border and the interior—he has also placed nearly insurmountable boulders on every path to legal immigration. He has slashed the refugee quota from 85,000 to 18,000 and is not even filling that. He has turned the asylum program into a cruel joke, separating migrant moms from babies as a deterrence measure. New reporting by finds that even considered “extreme action” against Central American migrants such as shooting “heat-rays” to make their skin feel like it is burning when they came close to the border—not to mention spikes on the wall, a moat filled with snakes, and shooting migrants in the legs . He has slowed family-based immigration to a crawl. Not even the H-1B program for high-skilled foreign professionals, which literally no one except for the most extreme restrictionists doubts is an unmitigated boon for the country, has been spared.
And that was before the pandemic. In April, Trump first hit a two-month pause on every category of legal immigration except for spouses and minor children of American citizens. Then he extended the pause to the end of this year.
But the most chilling aspect of Trump’s anti-immigration agenda might be its assaults on the naturalization program. Between 2016 and 2019, according to an analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy, the administration’s denial rate for military naturalizations had increased 143 percent (from 7 percent to 17 percent). And the number of immigrants in the military who naturalized dropped by more than half between the same time period. Why? Because the administration made active duty immigrants—people willing to die for this country—ineligible for an expedited path to citizenship. Since then, a court has asked the administration to reinstate that path.
And then there is Operation Second Look, his effort to strip immigrants of their citizenship. Before Trump launched this program last year, the only people who faced denaturalization were Nazis and war criminals who had lied about their past on their citizenship applications. But the Trump administration has created a task force that would make denaturalization a priority. This means that potentially 17 million naturalization petitions approved between 1990 and 2016 might be reviewed for omissions or misrepresentations. One naturalized citizen that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has targeted is a Pakistani man who has lived in America for three decades, is married to an American woman and has three American kids. His crime? He failed to reveal on his naturalization application that he had been ordered deported in absentia for an asylum hearing. (He claims he didn’t show up because he didn’t receive notification.) Acting Director of USCIS Ken Cuccinelli has already referred over 1,600 naturalized citizens for possible prosecution. The last time America went down anything resembling this path was during the McCarthy era when it tried to take away the citizenship of communists and subversives. However, even that effort didn’t have a reach as broad as this one where almost every naturalized citizen can be targeted, basically reducing him or her to a less secure, second-class status.
Where will the administration obtain funds for Operation Second Look given that Congress is refusing to appropriate money for it? By reallocating them from the immigration application fee account. This account was already running low because it covers 95 percent of its funding through visa fees and last year, thanks to Trump’s anti-immigration slams, the agency received 1 million fewer applications, Los Angeles Times Molly O’ Toole reported. The upshot was that even before the pandemic hit, the agency was facing a $1.3 billion budgetary shortfall.
But given the post-COVID immigration pause, these visa fees have dried up completely and things have gotten much worse for those wishing to get naturalized.
At first, the USCIS completely shut down the naturalization program because it claimed that it could not conduct in-person interviews or hold naturalization ceremonies safely. It’s unclear why officials didn’t turn to virtual means to administer citizenship oaths. Although it has reinstated the program partially now, it still insists that it cannot restart it fully because it does not have the necessary funds to bring back all the naturalization officers and other personnel it has furloughed.
The result is that at this point over 100,000 immigrants whose applications have already been approved are waiting to take the oath and become U.S. citizens. Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship, estimated that about 2,100 immigrants run out of time to vote each day USCIS offices remain closed, one reason why some Pennsylvania immigrants have sued the agency. Even some Republicans are getting alarmed that the administration is deliberately dragging its feet to prevent these immigrants from getting the right to vote in November. A bipartisan group of lawmakers including Sens. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) and Martin Heinrich (D–N.M.), both sons of naturalized citizens, sent a letter in May to Cuccinelli asking him to “take all necessary measures” to enable naturalizations to proceed, including holding virtual ceremonies. Many are also urging the administration to stop diverting funding to detect alleged fraud among naturalized citizens and focus instead on expediting their naturalization applications. So far, however, there is little sign that the administration is listening.
All of this adds up to a president who is no friend of immigrants. For the president to serenade newly naturalized immigrants at the staged White House ceremony and then use the footage as a campaign prop was nothing less than sheer chutzpah.
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