AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Naturalization ceremonies carry with them a sense of permanence. They signify an end to an often long immigration process. But last month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services started a task force to review cases where people may have lied in order to get citizenship. And now the administration says it could be denaturalizing potentially a few thousand people. To understand what that means and to put it in context, we're joined by Mae Ngai. She's a professor of history at Columbia University.
MAE NGAI: Thank you for having me.
CHANG: Is what the Trump administration doing here new? I mean, is there historical precedent for devoting resources like this to trying to detect citizenship fraud?
NGAI: The last time the federal government tried to denaturalize citizens was during the McCarthy period. And they went after people who they were accusing of being Communists who were naturalized citizens. And they took away their citizenship and deported them. It wasn't that many people because, actually, it's not that easy to do. But that was the last time that there was a concerted effort. So it's been...
NGAI: ...Almost 75 years...
NGAI: ...Since the government has tried to do it. And I think most people would say that the Red Scare, or the McCarthy period, was not the nation's proudest moment.
CHANG: Well, just to be clear - are you saying that in administrations since the McCarthy era, on a case by case basis when it comes up, government officials will address it but there isn't sort of a proactive effort to ferret out naturalization fraud?
NGAI: Exactly. Usually, naturalization cases come up when a charge is made. So somebody might come forward and accuse a naturalized citizen of having lied on their application. And then the government will follow up and do an investigation. And if there's evidence of that, they will bring a charge. So they do not proactively go out to ferret out, so to speak, naturalization fraud.
CHANG: So that is how this effort is quite different from decades past.
NGAI: That's right.
CHANG: What kind of fraud are we talking about in, say, this case, this new task force which is looking for cases of fraud in applications for citizenship? What kind of lies are they saying might have occurred in these applications?
NGAI: Well, typically, you would be concerned about somebody who had criminal convictions, and they were not honest about it on their application. There are also cases where you could be stripped of your citizenship if you fail to disclose that you are a member of a proscribed organization like the Nazi party or al-Qaida. You could be denaturalized if you had a dishonorable discharge from the military. So these are really the only grounds for denaturalizing somebody.
CHANG: And when someone is accused of committing fraud while they're trying to become a citizen, what does it take to actually strip them of citizenship? What is the process?
NGAI: Well, this is another important issue today because it is not an immigration issue. This is an issue of the district courts. It's the district courts that grant citizenship, that grant naturalization. And it's only the district courts that can take it away. So a charge has to be brought by a U.S. attorney. Now, the Trump administration is being very vague about this. But if they are going to hand this over to Department of Homeland Security or ICE, which is what some of the murmurings indicate, then that would be a violation of our own established procedures, and people would not be getting their day in court.
CHANG: And if the government is successful at proving that there was fraud and stripping someone of citizenship, then what happens to that person? Are they immediately deported back to their home country?
NGAI: Yes, immediately.
CHANG: Are there statistics that measure how often fraud happens in the naturalization system?
NGAI: It is rare. Compared to the numbers of people who are naturalized every year, it is a relatively small number.
CHANG: But the Trump administration says they think they could potentially be deporting thousands of people. Thousands of people could have been committing naturalization fraud. Are those numbers - you don't trust those numbers?
NGAI: This idea that there might even be a couple of thousand people who lied on their applications is a very small number compared to the number of naturalized citizens we have in this country. We have millions of them. And a third of the people in this country who are foreign born are naturalized citizens.
CHANG: That's Mae Ngai of Columbia University.
Thank you for joining us.
NGAI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.