Overnight the White House sent out a press release with a story that is at once familiar and novel. Early this morning, ICE deported 95 year old Jakiw Palij, a former Nazi SS guard at a labor camp in German-occupied Poland, to Germany. Palij’s story is a familiar one. He immigrated to the United States in 1949. He became a US citizen in 1957. In 2001, he admitted to Department of Justice officials that he had lied about his wartime activities when he came to the United States. In 2003, he was stripped of his US citizenship. He was ordered deported in 2004 and a appeal of his deportation order was denied in 2005.
The hold up in Palij in deportation appears to have been tied to the shifting borders which were both a driver and a result of the world wars. Palij was born in a part of inter-war Poland which is now Ukraine, presumably giving both countries a solid argument that he was not their problem, especially since he was a collaborator with Germany. The Trump administration haggled with Germany to finally take him. He arrived in Germany this morning.
For those who remember the last decades of the 20th century, Palij joins a small but shameful list of one-time US citizens whose Nazi pasts were exposed and who were eventually stripped of their citizenship and deported. (One of the most notorious was John Demjanjuk.) But in this case, while the deportation is a righteous act, it is not hard to see a malign political motive in the White House’s press campaign surrounding the deportation. American citizenship should be unrevokeable, a one-way process in all but the most extreme circumstances. In the case of the Nazi war criminals there is both the wartime activities and the fact – really, by definition – that they had to lie about those activities to gain citizenship. Still, the fact that naturalized citizens can lose their citizenship whereas the native born cannot strikes at the heart of a core tenet of American law and tradition – that all citizens are equal. So it is a recourse that should be used with extreme caution and rarely.
The Trump administration has chosen a different path. The DHS recently formed a “denaturalization task force” which has been tasked with reviewing the histories of naturalized US citizens to see whose citizenship can be revoked and deported. One notorious example, before the task force got up and running, is explained here. The aim is to find pre-citizenship crimes or violations of immigration law or simply inaccuracies in citizenship applications which can be used to deport current US citizens.
The denaturalizations have a technical legal basis similar to Palij’s: pre-citizenship bad acts and/or inaccuracies in the application for citizenship which make the grant of citizenship fraudulent. In practice, this violates a core tenet of who we are as a country makes the citizenship of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans contingent – all for the purpose of cleaving away as many immigrants as possible, even including ones who have already become citizens.
The Palij deportation comes hours after President Trump’s White House reception honoring ICE and CBP, an effort to burnish the agencies’ reputations after being pushed into the political maelstrom and after the on-going family separation crisis. It was clearly coordinated to be part of that effort. The press release from Sarah Sanders ends with a call for tips about others.
The United States government has prioritized the identification, prosecution and deportation of Nazi war criminals since the 1970s. If you have information about foreign nationals or foreign nationals who naturalized to United States citizenship and are suspected of engaging in human rights abuses or war crimes, please call the ICE Homeland Security Investigations tip line at 866-DHS-2-ICE, or complete its online tip form. https://www.ice.gov/human-rights-violators-war-crimes-unit
It’s notable that if you visit the Human Rights Violators & War Crimes Unit home (a unit which predates the Trump administration), also calls for the tips. But the call for tips is different. It reads “if you have information about foreign nationals suspected of engaging in human rights abuses or war crimes … (emphasis added)”
Few of us would disagree that former Nazis who participated in war crimes should not be given refuge or citizenship in the US. But denaturalization is extreme and fraught device which should be employed only in the most extreme circumstances. There are very few Nazi war criminals left. Palij is 95. The nature of human longevity dictates that we are at the outer time bound of these stories. It’s quite unlikely that ICE will be getting tips about more of them. Of course there are many atrocities and abuses that have happened since World War II in many parts of the world. But in this case, it is clear that the White House (and remember, White Houses don’t usually get involved in messaging on deportations at all) is using Palij’s story to troll for denunciations of other US citizens for denaturalization and deportation.