The United States government has long reserved its power to revoke citizenship for the rarest of cases, going after the likes of war criminals, child rapists and terrorist funders.
Norma Borgono is none of those. The 63-year-old secretary who 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. But a week after her baby granddaughter came home from the hospital, Borgono received a letter from the U.S. government: The Department of Justice was suing 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.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen if she goes to Peru,” said her daughter, Urpi Ríos. “We have nothing there.”
Borgono, a Miami resident for 28 years, is being targeted based on her minor role in a $24 million fraud scheme in the previous decade. 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.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
When the feds caught wind of the scheme, Borgono cooperated. The secretary never made any money beyond her regular salary and helped the FBI make a case that put her former boss behind bars for four years. On May 17, 2012, Borgono took a plea deal and was sentenced to one year of house arrest, four years of probation and $5,000 of restitution.
Working two jobs, she paid off her restitution and was relieved of her sentence early. Two years after she put it all behind her, Borgono received the letter notifying her that the U.S. government wanted to take away her citizenship.
The stated reason 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.
Bouncing her 3-month-old daughter on her lap, Ríos said the family was shocked by the letter. They had no idea this kind of case was even possible.
“Had the threat to her citizenship been brought up,” during the original case, she said, “we would have gone to trial or found some way to fight it.”
Borgono is one of thousands of citizens and legal residents of the United States who may now find themselves subject to denaturalization and deportation for past offenses, some of them committed 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,” said Matthew Hoppock, a Kansas City immigration attorney who has been tracking the changes in denaturalization policy.
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 citizenship fraud, in addition to Green Card fraud by holders of permanent residency. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will hire 300 new Homeland Security Investigations agents and scores of additional staffers, using that money, according to the proposed ICE FY 2019 budget.
The main thrust of this push 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 schemes a priority and regularly denaturalized people convicted in such instances.
Borgono did not lie about her identity. But the government’s case against her is built on the same underlying argument: that she did not disclose a previous crime on her citizenship application.
The push extends beyond ICE. Another DHS agency, Citizenship and Immigration Services, is also devoting new resources to this effort, opening an office in Los Angeles specifically to work on these cases. It is hiring “several dozen lawyers and immigration officers” to staff it, Citizenship and Immigration Services Director L. Francis Cissna told the Associated Press. Staffers have been working at the new office since January 2017, which the agency says will be the central office for reviewing potential denaturalization cases.
Ten lawyers have already been hired for that office, according to officials at the Justice Department.
From 1990 to 2017, only 305 denaturalization cases were pursued, an average of 11 per year. Under the initiative, which began in 2008 but has been ramping up since President Donald Trump took office, immigration officials have already referred more than 100 cases to the Department of Justice. A January news release stated that they now plan to refer an estimated 1,600 more cases based on reviews of un-digitized fingerprint files from old deportation orders.
The number of cases doubled from 15 in 2016, the final year of the Obama administration, to 30 in 2017, and 2018 is on track to equal or pass 2017’s numbers. Last year’s caseload reached a level not seen since the early 2000s, which saw a rise in response to a backlog in checking naturalization applications.
Catching people who skirt immigration rules has gotten more efficient with the Homeland Security fingerprint database, which can do in seconds what might have once taken an analyst a full day. That database is incomplete, and as DHS works to digitize its backlog of old, paper fingerprint records through a project called Historical Fingerprint Enrollment, it is finding cases of people who were once ordered deported, often for serious crimes, and later became a citizen or legal resident under a different identity.
As these double identity cases are found, the administration is moving to denaturalize those citizens, sometimes based on a fraud committed decades ago.
“In terms of the aggressive attitude toward denaturalization, it is a very different day,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer with the nonpartisan think tank Migration Policy Institute.
The new ICE staff will be reviewing files from more than 700,000 deportation orders, looking for missing fingerprints with matches elsewhere in their database.
The 700,000 files come from a larger collection of deportation orders going back to 1990. They were selected using an algorithm that excluded people less likely to have committed subsequent immigration fraud based on, say, their advanced age at the time of deportation, according to Department of Justice officials. Several thousand have already been flagged for further review.
As funding kicks in, more people like Borgono may find themselves swept up in the denaturalization push.
When a denaturalization lawsuit is filed, the defendant’s options are to fight it or be deported. Ríos explained that the only settlement offered to her mother was to voluntarily renounce her citizenship and move to Peru. They believe this would be a death sentence.
Borgono and her children suffer from a rare kidney disease called Alports syndrome that eventually leads to the loss of kidney function. They no longer have any close family or ties to Peru because Borgono’s mother and brother both died from their kidney disease decades ago. Borgono has been on the Miami transplant list for two years, and Ríos is scared her mother won’t be able to get proper care, let alone a transplant, if forced to go back to Peru.
“For everything that she did wrong, that she cooperated on, that she paid her debt to society for, now they want to send her away to die over there?” Ríos asked through tears.
Borgono, whose 64th birthday is this week, is just a year away from retirement. She is currently working as a secretary for a company outside the export industry. With the birth of her first grandchild, she was looking forward to helping raise baby Isabel, whose first name is the same as Borgono’s middle name.
The family’s story is a familiar immigrant tale. Borgono came to the United States legally in 1989 with her 13-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. She worked long hours cleaning offices and doing other odd jobs until she became a secretary. The citizenship of her now-adult children is not in jeopardy.
“I love this country, it embraced us,” Ríos said. “It was such a proud moment for all of us to become citizens.”
Borgono raised her children as a single mother. They went to college, her son becoming an architect and her daughter the vice president of human resources at a TV station. They helped their mother apply for citizenship in 2007. Then, in 2009, the feds showed up at her house.
During her sentencing in 2012, the judge was sympathetic to Borgono. She had not profited from the scheme and had helped the authorities bring the case against her boss. As a testament to her character, members of her community, including her priest, had submitted to the court letters of support and photos of her volunteering.
In March, Ríos was due to give birth to her first child. A week before she went to the hospital, she lost her job at the TV station, along with her insurance. Then, the baby had complications and stayed at the hospital for two weeks. A week after baby Isabel came home, finally healthy, Borgono received notice of the lawsuit against her.
“I think it’s a misuse of their discretion to file a denaturalization suit against Norma,” said Borgono’s lawyer, Pat Dray, who defended her in the original fraud case. “Especially in light of the fact that she cooperated with the government and they were able to use her to bring a case against her former boss.”
On the same day it sued Borgono, the Justice Department also filed a denaturalization lawsuit against her former boss, Guillermo Mondino. A press release announced both cases.
Immigration activists and lawyers are worried about the ease with which citizenship can be stripped from someone like Borgono.
“The finality that came with citizenship in the past is now gone,” Chishti said.
Catching old offenders this way, ICE officials say, sends a message of deterrence for future offenders.
“As easy as it was for the government to be defrauded in the past, it is now very easy for the government to identify fraudsters,” said John Tobon, deputy special agent in charge at Miami Homeland Security Investigations. “So it is now kind of turning the tables, with the hope that people will say, ‘if my risk of getting caught is now almost certain, I will choose not to take the risk.’ “
The ICE budget states that there will be 1,184 employees working specifically on benefit fraud cases, including 512 new positions. Tobon explained that the new hires are part of an agency-wide push after a five-year hiring freeze.
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, like Borgono’s case, is also picking up.
The courts have long been the bottleneck in revoking citizenship. DOJ has rarely pushed such cases to go forward and for decades generally did not accept most cases of double identity fraud flagged by immigration officials. Instead, it saved its limited resources in the area for more egregious cases, according to a 2016 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.
In 2015, under the previous administration, the Justice Department made an agreement with Homeland Security to widen the scope of denaturalization cases to include naturalized citizens who had gained security clearances or positions of public trust or who had a criminal history. That led to a sharp increase in referrals in 2016, according to the report.
The current effort to digitize and examine old fingerprint files was a natural outgrowth of that report, explained Michael Bars, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The referrals have only increased since then. ICE expects that to continue in response to Trump’s third and fourth executive orders, issued during his first week in office. Those two orders directed that a wall be built along the U.S.-Mexico border and that sanctuary cities comply with efforts to round up undocumented immigrants. As more cases are referred to the Justice Department, officials say the department is looking to devote new resources to meet demand.
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 court 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, an example provided by Chief Justice John Roberts as a crime he had committed but never had been arrested for.
During the hearing, Justice Stephen Breyer said he found it “rather surprising that the government of the United States thinks” the naturalization law should be “interpreted in a way that would throw into doubt the citizenship of vast percentages of all naturalized citizens.”
The court ruled unanimously that only material offenses need to be disclosed.
How “material offenses” get interpreted is beginning to play out in denaturalization cases around the country, as decades-long residents find themselves unexpectedly in court.
A half-dozen Floridians have been targeted for denaturalization since Trump took office. One has already been deported. And immigration lawyers expect Florida will see many more cases.
In a statement, Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said, “Nobody who obtained U.S. citizenship by deliberately assuming a false identity will be surprised to learn they are being referred to the Justice Department for denaturalization proceedings. USCIS screens for deliberate acts of fraud relating to forgery or the use of false identities, and we go to great lengths to ensure individuals aren’t susceptible to instances of error, misunderstanding, or special circumstances.”