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Naturalized Americans could lose their citizenship with thousands of cases under review

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 8/15/2018 By Brenda Medina, El Nuevo Herald
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MIAMI - Federal officials are reviewing the citizenship petition process of more than 2,500 people who became naturalized American citizens, in search of possible fraud committed during the process.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) told EFE news agency this week that about 100 of the 2,500 cases "have a reasonable suspicion" and were referred to the Department of Justice.

The DOJ will evaluate whether to initiate legal proceedings in these cases. Part of the process could include revoking a person's U.S. citizenship, spokeswoman Claire Nicholson told EFE.

The review is part of a multimillion-dollar effort by the Trump administration, which seeks to identify people who have committed fraud during the process to obtain citizenship or permanent residence, or who committed crimes before naturalizing and did not report them, officials have said.

a red white and blue striped tie: On board the USS Midway, 49 service members and dependents from 19 countries were sworn in as new U.S. citizens on July 3, 2018. © Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS On board the USS Midway, 49 service members and dependents from 19 countries were sworn in as new U.S. citizens on July 3, 2018. This summer, the government announced it tapped a group of lawyers and investigators, operating under Customs and Immigration, to review the naturalization procedures. USCIS staff has been reviewing potential cases for citizenship revocation since January 2017, the agency's director, L. Francis Cissna, told the Associated Press.

The Department of Homeland Security (under which USCIS operates) also plans to devote more than $207.6 million in a separate initiative involving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE will use the funds to hire new agents for the National Security Investigations division to look for possible citizenship and green card fraud, according to ICE's budget plan for 2019.

One of the tasks is to identify applicants who were ordered to leave the country but stayed behind and naturalized under another identity.

To determine possible cases of fraud, researchers focus on fingerprint records on deportation orders from the 1990s and prior years, which were not digitized. This information is now being compared with more recent files. The authorities plan to refer some 1,600 of these types of cases to the DOJ.

Efforts to revoke citizenship are not new but have accelerated under the Trump administration.

Between 1990 and 2017, there were 305 legal cases of denaturalization, an average of 11 per year. Under former President Barack Obama, the number of cases increased to 15 in 2016, his last full year in office. The number of cases doubled to 30 in 2017 under President Donald Trump and is expected to be higher this year.

Immigration activists and attorneys have said they fear the plan is to scare immigrants. They said the measures could affect people who committed fraud decades ago.

"I'm worried that people who have been citizens for a long time will now be targeted for denaturalization, and that the effort to defend against a federal denaturalization claim is so expensive that people will just give up," Matthew Hoppock, a Kansas City immigration lawyer who has been following the changes in denaturalization policy, told the Herald in July.

Hoppock was referring to cases such as that of Norma Borgono, a 63-year-old Peruvian woman who has lived in Miami for 28 years.

Borgono was sentenced in 2012 to one year of house arrest and four years of probation for her involvement in a $24 million fraud a decade ago. As secretary of an export and import company called Texon Inc., she prepared documents for her boss, who pocketed money from loans fraudulently received from the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Borgono did not profit from the fraud and cooperated with the authorities in the investigation.

Borgono, who has a rare kidney disease, served her sentence and paid the restitution of $5,000 little by little. But this year, a week after the birth of her granddaughter, she received a letter from the federal government warning her that they are seeking to revoke her citizenship and deport her to Peru.

The government alleges that she naturalized after the fraudulent operation began. Although she had not been charged when she petitioned for citizenship, the Justice Department now argues that Borgono lied by not disclosing her illegal activities in the application.

Borgono's lawyers argue that the case represents an abuse of federal officials' discretion in filing cases of "denaturalization."

The USCIS said in a statement to the Herald that people who has used a false identity to naturalize shouldn't be surprised to be referred to the Department of Justice to withdraw their citizenship.

"We go to great lengths to ensure individuals aren't susceptible to instances of error, misunderstanding, or special circumstances," the statement said.

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(Reporters Adiel Kaplan and Johanna A. Alvarez contributed with this report.)

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