In July 1858, Lincoln gave a speech in Chicago arguing that every American — whether a direct descendant of the Founding Fathers or a recently settled immigrant — has something to celebrate on the Fourth of July: the revolutionary pronouncement of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Now, 160 years later, that principle is under assault.
Last month, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced the launch of a task force to strip thousands of naturalized citizens of their citizenship. The government agency is hiring dozens of lawyers to look for evidence of discrepancies in citizenship applications and refer cases to the Justice Department for denaturalization proceedings. One recent target is a grandmother who immigrated to the United States nearly 30 years ago.
I used to take for granted that people born in this country, like me, and first-generation immigrants who became citizens, like my great-grandfather, Leonardo, were fundamentally equal and had the same rights as Americans. Leonardo arrived at Ellis Island in 1894 and settled in Tarrytown, New York. He was a shoemaker by trade, but also an activist and an orator who argued passionately for the rights of immigrants who worked on the nearby Rockefeller estate.
When my great-grandmother, Mariantonia, followed Leonardo to America in 1901, the ship’s manifest said that she and Leonardo were already married; in fact, they were married soon after she arrived.
This discrepancy didn’t cause any trouble for my great-grandparents back then. But that was before modern technology made examining immigration records much easier. Today, an outspoken advocate for immigrants’ and workers’ rights like my great-grandfather might be a prime target for investigation. He eventually lost his shoe business when the local priest denounced him as a socialist and urged a boycott of his store, forcing him and his family to leave Tarrytown.
The new task force reverses decades of policy in which denaturalization was rare. The last time the government so actively sought to denaturalize and deport citizens was during the McCarthy period.
There are now more than 20 million naturalized citizens in the United States. Not all of them will be targeted directly by the task force. But many could be robbed of their sense of having a permanent home in this country, their right to speak and assemble freely without fear of government reprisal, and their participation in the same civic inheritance as native-born citizens.
Among the many harms and indignities suffered by immigrants under the Trump administration — from having their children taken from them at the border to being discharged from the military without explanation — the denaturalization task force has perhaps provoked the least backlash so far. But it may inflict the greatest damage on the principles of our Founding Fathers and the bonds that tie all patriotic American citizens together.
David DeCarlo is a lawyer and lives in Chicago. He is a fellow with Truman National Security Project.