By Patricia M. Corrales
I joined the INS, then part of the Department of Justice, in March of 1995. Within weeks of becoming a trial attorney, my boss and mentor, assigned me a very unique case representing the agency in a federal case involving the naturalization of Filipino war veterans.
Some Filipino nationals, during World War II, had shown their loyalty to this country by serving in the Armed Forces of the United States, and were promised naturalization. When some of these Filipino war veterans filed petitions for naturalization, INS denied their petitions claiming their names could not be found on some list of those who served in WWII. These Filipino war veterans attempted to reason with officials in the INS. That was a time when reason and being reasonable were core principles for the INS. The right thing got done and many of these veterans became citizens.
Soon after, I was assigned to prepare and litigate denaturalization cases. Denaturalization is the legal process of revoking or taking away someone’s U.S. citizenship who obtained citizenship illegally or by fraud. It was important work. There were serious criminals and dangerous people who obtained their naturalization by lying and misrepresenting their individual and criminal backgrounds. These were people who should never have been cloaked with the rights of a U.S. citizen. But, there was a legal process to correct those mistakes. I handled denaturalization cases for over 15 years.
U.S. citizenship is the most precious jewel in the immigration world. It is the most sought-after membership. Being a U.S. citizen allows you to vote; it allows you to participate in our democratic polity; and, it allows you the right to petition your immediate family members so they too can immigrate legally to the United States. U.S. citizenship allows you to remain. You cannot be deported if you are a U.S. citizen. But U.S. citizenship is more than these things; it’s a symbol of pride and loyalty to a great country that provides opportunity and hope. Even though some people obtain naturalization illegally or by fraud, there are so many others who are deserving and qualified to be U.S. citizens.
In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) emerged. Within the DHS, USCIS became the benefit arm of the DHS—meaning that those seeking lawful permanent residence, naturalization, or other immigration benefits file their applications with USCIS and leave their expectations and hopes at the door of an agency whose mission statement used to be equal parts hope and compassion:
USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.
That mission statement gave hope to those who immigrated to the United States that one day they too could become Americans.
Under the Trump Administration, the mission statement of USCIS changed to reflect the Administration’s clear disdain for immigrants. This current USCIS mission statement is:
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system, safeguarding its integrity and promise by efficiently and fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.
USCIS’ new mission statement can most reasonably be read to be enforcement rather than benefit oriented.
Now that I represent clients trying to navigate immigration law, I have been noticing a disturbing trend since USCIS changed its mission statement. It seems that ensuring the integrity of the immigration system is code for “keep out.” USCIS’ punitive application of the current good moral character provision and its misguided priorities in handling naturalization applications is forcing many Latino and other minority immigrants with minor criminal histories and years of reformed character to live in the shadows of full membership, to never possess the full rights and privileges of United States citizenship. Why? This Administration’s anti-immigrant position is scaring the Latino population from applying for naturalization in fear that they could be arrested, detained, and deported at their naturalization interview.
As a seasoned prosecutor for the INS, then ICE, and as private immigration defense attorney, I have worked with immigration law from every angle. In my opinion, this Administration is trying to keep out Latinos and other minorities who can obtain the power of the vote and exercise that power to vote out unreasonable, uncompromising, and steadfastly anti-immigrant Republicans. This must the reason. Why else deny naturalization to my client from Mexico who has been a lawful permanent resident for over twenty-eight years, speaks English, passed his civics and government exam, pays taxes, based all background checks, and in the last eighteen years has had no arrests or other criminal history?
USCIS officers are requesting old police records (often so old that the reports have been destroyed), seeking documents for those old criminal convictions that are not relevant to a determination of good moral character. In essence, USCIS is creating bars to citizenship, subverting the statutory and regulatory scheme governing naturalization as a way of keeping out Latino applicants.
Citizenship should not be limited to the few but should be offered to those who are deserving and loyal to this country and the principles of our Constitution.
Patricia M. Corrales is an attorney practicing primarily in the field of immigration law with a focus on criminal immigration defense and citizenship issues. She began her career as a Deputy District Attorney in Denver, Colorado. She then went on to join the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, and continued as a prosecutor with the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As a Senior Attorney, she was part of a team of lawyers who handled complex national security cases. As a Senior Attorney with ICE, she worked closely with special agents from ICE, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies, as well as various US Attorney’s Offices nationwide. She is recognized for providing quality legal analysis on criminal denaturalization cases.