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Trump’s Cynical War on American Citizenship

The president's slurs and his administration's policies are an attack on U.S. democracy itself—all in a desperate bid to cling to power.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Last week, a nine-year-old girl was walking to school with her brother and two friends in San Ysidro, San Diego, when she was stopped by immigration officials, according to reports. The girl was an American citizen; she even had a U.S. passport card with her. The officials detained her nonetheless—for around 32 hours, no less. U.S. Customs and Border Protection claimed in a statement that the frightened girl “provided inconsistent information during her inspection.”

Under a previous president, such an incident might have been written off as a mistake, or at least a rare case of immigration officials gone rogue. But this was no fluke. Since President Donald Trump took office more than two years ago, he and his allies have tried to alter the potency of citizenship itself—diluting it for some, strengthening it for others. They want nothing less than to redefine what it means to be an American citizen.

To many Americans, citizenship is the most valuable thing they possess. It permanently affixes its bearer within the American body politic, guaranteeing them all the rights and liberties protected by the Constitution. To the president, though, it’s just another asset to devalue for short-term political gain, the long-term consequences be damned.

In the closing weeks of last year’s midterm elections, Trump openly toyed with the idea of revoking birthright citizenship by executive order—an unconstitutional act that sought to hand him the power to determine who is and isn’t an American citizen. But that is the closest he’s come to pushing a policy that would change the terms of American citizenship. His actual efforts are more subtle than that.

Trump’s most visible attack on American citizenship is how he denigrates it in public remarks, especially when it comes to his political opponents. Earlier this month, he wrote on Twitter that four women lawmakers of color should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Three of the women were born in the United States; the fourth, Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, is a naturalized citizen who left Somalia as a refugee decades ago.

The racist schoolyard taunt carried a disturbing message: that Omar, the other lawmakers in question, and nonwhite American citizens, by extension, are only conditional members of the American political community. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the president’s top congressional defenders, tried to absolve Trump’s racism by doubling down on it. “A Somali refugee embracing Trump would not have been asked to go back,” he said. This was delivered as a proof that Trump isn’t racist, but merely confirmed that his understanding of whether or not a person of color “belongs” in the United States is conditioned by their personal political allegiance to him.

Though Trump claims to love legal immigrants, his policies often aim to restrict their path to naturalization. Last year, he endorsed the RAISE Act, a bill drafted by the Senate’s top immigration hawks. If signed into law, it would reduce the number of new green cards available each year by roughly 500,000, effectively cutting legal immigration into the U.S. by half. The bill proved unpopular, even though Republicans controlled both chambers, and it died without a vote. Trump’s most recent budget, which serves as more of a White House wish list than a blueprint for lawmakers, also proposed hiking citizenship application fees.

Trump’s vision is faring better within the executive branch. Hard-liners and loyalists now run the parts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that deal with immigration and naturalization. Last month, Trump bypassed the Senate to install Ken Cuccinelli as the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Those appointments help shape policy and priorities in subtle but important ways. In recent years, for example, naturalizations of new citizens have slowed to a crawl. More than 700,000 permanent residents are currently backlogged, with some expected to wait for more than two years, according to 2017 data.

USCIS also received widespread attention last year when it announced it would assemble a task force to pursue more denaturalizations. The agency faces an uphill battle, to say the least. It is constitutionally impossible for a natural-born citizen to be denaturalized against their will; naturalized Americans can only lose their citizenship if the government proves they lied during the application process. The Supreme Court recently raised the threshold for denaturalization by ruling that the government couldn’t use small errors or minor lies to strip one’s citizenship. Even if few cases are prosecuted, however, the denaturalization campaign sends a message that citizenship may be more ephemeral that many naturalized Americans thought it would be.

Under Trump’s watch, other DHS agencies are sending that message more directly. Earlier this year, immigration officials held 18-year-old U.S. citizen Francisco Galicia for almost a month in an overcrowded detention facility in Texas. The Dallas-born teenager reportedly slept on the floors of cells packed with dozens of other men without regular access to legal counsel or family members. He lost almost 20 pounds while in custody from malnutrition. Galicia, who had his birth certificate with him when he was apprehended, told his lawyer that he considered signing the paperwork for deportation just to get out of the facility.

Galicia’s case, and that of the nine-year-old detained in San Diego, are not extraordinary. The Los Angeles Times reported last year that Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained at least 1,488 U.S. citizens between 2012 and 2018. Some of them were held for months at a time. Proving one’s citizenship is harder than it sounds. After all, the average American does not carry their birth certificate around with them. Even those like Galicia who did carry it found their documents questioned and challenged by suspicious ICE officials. The Trump administration’s recent push to expand fast-track deportations into the nation’s interior will put fewer targets in front of immigration judges before they’re removed. That, in turn, raises the likelihood that Trump will deport U.S. citizens.

Trump’s war on citizenship is also part of a broader effort to limit who may participate in American democracy. For more than a year, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross tried to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census even as Census Bureau experts warned it would drive down noncitizen participation. The Supreme Court narrowly squelched those efforts in June; Trump ultimately conceded defeat earlier this month.

Republicans know that a more inaccurate census would benefit them electorally. In recent years, GOP officials and conservative legal groups laid the legal groundwork for states to redraw legislative maps after the 2020 census by using a state’s citizen voting-age population instead of its total population. Republican gerrymandering strategist Thomas Hofeller wrote in a 2015 memo that using CVAP data for legislative maps would be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites” because it would yield fewer congressional representatives in heavily Latino and Democratic areas, and more in heavily white and conservative areas. The Hofeller memo, which came to light in early June, likely torpedoed the citizenship question’s chances before the high court.

Trump vowed after that Supreme Court defeat to gather the data anyway. In case there was any doubt about its purpose, Attorney General Bill Barr laid it to rest that day. “For example, there is a current dispute over whether illegal aliens can be included for apportionment purposes,” he said in a statement in the Rose Garden alongside the president. “Depending on the resolution of that dispute, this data may possibly prove relevant. We will be studying the issue.” Citizenship isn’t just something to be devalued among those who Trump disfavors; it’s also a resource that can be used to shore up white Republican hegemony.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent argued on Monday that the president’s recent surge in racist remarks is likely aimed at rallying fervent supporters ahead of the 2020 election and obscuring his economic policies’ failure to help working-class Americans. The Republican Party itself is largely stomaching the president’s bigotry so it can stay in power. Not running afoul of Trump’s supporters fulfills that goal in the short term; tilting the nation’s political structures toward white rural voters achieves it in the long term.

The power of American citizenship rests in its permanence. The Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause, drafted during the fires of Reconstruction, aimed to place disputes about the boundaries of civic participation forever beyond the scope of day-to-day politics. By treating membership in the American political community as negotiable instead of fixed, Trump is undermining the very foundations of multiracial democracy.