This bill would take citizenship away from immigrants who aren’t “moral” enough

The ‘‘Protecting Our Communities from Gang Violence Act of 2018’’ Act, introduced in the House of Representatives last month by Republican Lee Zeldin of New York, would allow the U.S. government to revoke the citizenship status of naturalized immigrants who have been or are affiliated or associated with a criminal gang. 

The bill stipulates that an immigrant’s citizenship status can be called into question by a determination “that an alien does not exhibit good moral character based on gang membership, association, affiliation, or provision of material support” within ten years of becoming naturalized. In a press release, Zeddin cited the “the rise of MS-13 and other gangs” as the impetus for proposing the bill and also stressed the need to “crack down on . . . policies that have allowed MS-13 and other gangs to take hold in our communities and stay there.” Zeddin isn’t the only politico using MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) to target immigrant communities. During his first State of the Union address, Trump introduced the parents of two teenagers who were murdered by members of the gang to defend his Administration’s violent and repeated attacks on migrant communities. Recently, several immigrant advocacy groups have called out federal agents for using gang enforcement as a “pretext to arrest immigrants” and warned that allegations of gang activity can be easily manipulated and manufactured by ICE agents. Other immigration attorneys and experts told Think Progress that in the past few months, there’s been a rise in detentions of children seeking asylum at the border and undocumented youth in the U.S. for alleged gang involvement, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for migrants to prove their innocence.

MS-13 has become an easy way for xenophobic and racist legislators to justify the criminalization of all immigrants. And as Daniel Denvir from Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project explains, MS-13 is a “homegrown phenomenon” that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s as a result of Reagan’s military interventions in Central America. Interventionism contributed to civil conflicts in the region that led to huge numbers of refugees fleeing to the U.S., to whom Reagan denied refugee status. Refugees were forced to settle in segregated neighborhoods with substandard access to jobs and education, which Denvir claims led young people to gravitate towards these gangs, which later spread to Central America through U.S. mass deportation policies. And while Trump and company grossly exaggerate the criminal threat that MS-13 poses to the U.S., those same gangs have severely destabilized and disrupted Central America to the extent that a new generation of refugees are being forced to flee their homelands. Many of these very refugees and migrants are now being turned away from the U.S. and thanks to Zeldin’s bill, possibly being denied citizenship, because of gang activity that U.S. domestic and foreign policy created.

It’s also important to note that the U.S. government has already started implementing a version of Zeldin’s bill. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice began the process of revoking the citizenship of naturalized immigrants through “Operation Janus.” Immigrants who were granted citizenship without proper fingerprint records (meaning, before fingerprints were digitized) are now subject to having their citizenship revoked. The first victim was Baljinder Singh, a Sikh man from India. It should come as no surprise that programs like Operation Janus and the “Protecting Our Communities from Gang Violence Act of 2018″ would single out immigrants of color, Muslim and Sikh immigrants, and/or immigrants from the Global South.And it’s just as important to keep in mind that Zeldin’s bill is connected to global racist and fascist politics; in fact, just this week, Israel passed a law revoking Palestinians’ residency status. The United States isn’t the only nation-state working to strip people of their citizenship status and rights.

When a nation defines inclusion based on “good moral character” and allows federal agents who are trained to see migrants as invaders and intruders devoid of morality to set the terms and bounds of inclusion, immigrants of color are especially vulnerable. We have never been seen as moral, virtuous, or honorable. Our traditions, texts, sexualities, and spiritualities have historically been seen as the opposite of morality; in fact, colonialism was seen as a civilizing project that would save colonized peoples from our evil customs and cultures. Undocumented migrants especially are said to be dishonest and unethical, transgressive and dangerous. We did not “wait in line.” We violated the law. In the eyes of the state, our very existence in this country is immoral. We can’t be moral. We are the antagonism to morality.

If citizenship is revoked because of “good moral character,” we already know who is destined to lose.

Header image via Center for American Progress.


Durham, NC

Barbara is a doctoral student at The University of North Carolina interested in im/migration and migrant activism and organizing.

Barbara is a doctoral student at The University of North Carolina interested in im/migration and migrant activism and organizing.

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