Grandmother—63 and Sick—Is a Target of Denaturalization Task Force
In June, the Trump administration announced it would launch a denaturalization task force, targeting naturalized citizens accused of cheating on their applications, or convicted of crimes, however minor, before they were granted citizenship. In the past, denaturalization was a rare move, usually reserved for war criminals, child-sex offenders or terrorists and their funders. Now, as the Miami Herald reports, the task force is targeting a 63-year-old secretary from Peru who fits into none of those categories.
Norma Borgono, as the Miami Herald reports, “immigrated from Peru in 1989, volunteers weekly at church, raised two children on a $500-a-week salary and suffers from a rare kidney disorder.” Just after the birth of her granddaughter, Borgano received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice saying it is suing to denaturalize her.
It is targeting Borgano for her minor role in a $24 million fraud scheme orchestrated by her former employer. As the Herald explains, “As the secretary of an export company called Texon Inc., she prepared paperwork for her boss, who pocketed money from doctored loan applications filed with the U.S. Export-Import Bank.”
When the government uncovered the crime, Borgono cooperated. Not only did she not make money from the crime, she helped the FBI with a case that put her former boss in prison for four years. For her part in the process, Borgono paid $5,000 in restitution and was sentenced to one year of house arrest and four years of probation. She worked two jobs to pay the restitution and was granted early release.
Two years later, she received the letter. “The stated reason,” the Herald reports, “was 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.”
Her daughter, Urpi Ríos, was shocked and heartbroken by the letter. “I don’t know what’s going to happen if she goes to Peru,” she said. “We have nothing there.”
During the case, there was no question of whether her sentence would impact Borgono’s citizenship. As Masha Gessen explains in a New Yorker essay on Trump’s new commission, this was to be expected:
Denaturalization has been an exceedingly rare occurrence, for good reason: by the time a person is naturalized, she has lived in this country for a number of years and has passed the hurdles of obtaining entry, legal permanent residency, and, finally, citizenship. The conceit of naturalization is that it makes an immigrant not only equal to natural-born citizens but indistinguishable from them.
The new task force, however, builds on Donald Trump’s idea that, as Gessen explains, “America is under attack by malevolent immigrants who cause dangerous harm by finding ways to live here.”
Immigration lawyers are concerned that his new task force will lead to a deluge of deportations. “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 attorney who has been tracking the changes in denaturalization policy, told the Herald.
Borgono assumed she had passed the test and paid her debt to society. Based on the actions of former administrations, it was an understandable assumption, an innocent mistake. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staff, the task force is going after only those who knowingly lie on their applications, and not those who make an innocent mistake.
That distinction, Gessen argues, is fuzzier than many Trump administration officials would like to admit. She knows this from personal experience. When Gessen applied for citizenship in 1989 (she came to the U.S. in 1981 at age 14), the application barred “aliens afflicted with sexual deviation.” She knew at the time that she was gay, added a note saying so, and was granted citizenship anyway.
Later, after Gessen was naturalized, there was a question added to “green card” applications about whether applicants had ever committed a crime, although not specifying whether the crime was committed in the U.S. or elsewhere. Gessen writes:
In the Soviet Union of my youth, it was illegal to possess foreign currency or to spend the night anywhere you were not registered to live. In more than seventy countries, same-sex sexual activity is still illegal. On closer inspection, just about every naturalized citizen might look like an outlaw, or a liar.
Meanwhile, Borgono, who, the Herald reports, is just a year away from retirement and planning to spend more time with her family, especially her new granddaughter, is gearing up for a fight with the Department of Justice.
As Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer with the nonpartisan think tank Migration Policy Institute, told the Herald, “The finality that came with citizenship in the past is now gone.”