DOJ "Denaturalizing" Citizen for Failing to Disclose Past Crime

The citizenship application contains the question, “Have you EVER committed, assisted in committing, or attempted to commit, a crime or offense for which you were NOT arrested?” (emphasis original). Lying on that question makes any applicant vulnerable to having his or her citizenship later revoked and is the basis of the vast majority of denaturalization cases. Last summer, the Supreme Court heard a case about how broadly the government could use answers to that question to revoke citizenship. The U.S. attorney argued that it could for any crime, even something as small as driving five miles over the speed limit. The Court rejected that argument and ruled unanimously that only material offenses need to be disclosed.

Norma Borgono, a 63 year-old Peruvian woman who has been a Miami resident for 28 years and became a U.S. citizen in 2007, was recently informed by the Department of Justice that she was being sued by the federal government to “denaturalize” her as part of an unprecedented push by the Trump administration to revoke citizenship from people who committed criminal offenses before they became citizens.

The U.S. has in the past revoked citizenship for extreme offenses such as war crimes and immigration fraud (commonly in cases of marriage fraud or identity fraud, for example), and the push to investigate naturalized citizens can partly be attributed to an initiative started under the Obama administration when the Justice Department made an agreement with Homeland Security in 2015 to widen the scope of denaturalization cases to include naturalized citizens who had a criminal history. That agreement led to a sharp increase in referrals in 2016, according to a report on the matter.

The referrals have continued to increase under the Trump administration. In Florida, at least a half-dozen individuals have been targeted for denaturalization since Trump took office, and one has already been deported.

So far, most of the cases filed by the Trump administration have gone after people who entered the country illegally, but the pursuit of individuals for other crimes is also picking up. Last month it was reported that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service had formed a task force to identify Americans who lied on their citizenship applications and pursue denaturalization cases against them.

In a separate effort known as Operation Janus, the Department of Homeland Security plans to devote more than $207.6 million to look for cases of possible immigration fraud, in addition to Green Card fraud by holders of permanent residency. The main focus of this effort is to track down people who gamed the deportation system: those who were ordered deported but later gained citizenship or legal residency under a different identity. Gaming the immigration system is nothing new, including in South Florida, where marriage fraud schemes have flourished over the years. Immigration officials have long made catching those frauds a priority and regularly denaturalized people convicted in such instances.

In Borgono’s case, the government’s grounds for denaturalization is the allegation that she did not disclose a previous crime on her citizenship application. The crime was a $24 million fraud scheme in which she had a minor role due to her employment as the secretary for the perpetrator of the fraud. Court records show that she never made any money beyond her regular salary. When the feds discovered the scheme, Borgono cooperated and helped secure a conviction against her boss. In conjunction with her cooperation, she took a plea deal and was sentenced to one year of house arrest, four years of probation and $5,000 of restitution. She paid off her restitution by working two jobs and was relieved of her sentence early.

The stated reason for denaturalization is that Borgono became a U.S. citizen after the fraud scheme started. Although she had not yet been charged when she applied for citizenship, the Department of Justice is now arguing that she lied by not divulging her criminal activity on her application.

Read the Complaint here: United States v. Borgono