With almost no one watching, the federal government on Tuesday went to trial in one of the first denaturalization cases of the Trump era, a project the administration enthusiastically rolled out in 2017.
The man at the center of the trial is Parvez Manzoor Khan, a 62-year-old Floridian.
The federal government has so far expended extraordinary resources trying to denaturalize Khan, a truck driver and grandfather of three who’s been a citizen without incident since 2006. His case has been in the works for a year and a half, involves high-ranking Justice Department lawyers, and will likely continue for at least another year — even as the backlog in immigration courts, which also fall under the Justice Department’s purview, continues to grow. In a budget request for the 2019 fiscal year, the administration asked for $207.6 million to investigate 887 additional leads it expects to get into American citizens who may be vulnerable to denaturalization, and to review another 700,000 immigrant files.
In a process that began under former President Barack Obama, the federal government identified Khan as a target for denaturalization by combing through hundreds of thousands of old records and determining that he had become a citizen fraudulently, by failing to disclose a past deportation order that he wasn’t even aware of. The fact that the Trump administration’s test case centers on a truck-driving grandpa who potentially could have become a citizen even if he’d been completely forthright with immigration officials is simultaneously a damning indictment of the federal government’s strategy and further evidence of its efforts to demonize nonwhite immigrants at any cost.
In the full-day trial at a federal court in the Middle District of Florida, the Justice Department tried to establish that Khan obtained his American citizenship by lying to and hiding material facts about his immigration history from immigration officials. Khan’s lawyers, in turn, sought to show that the federal government failed to meet its very high burden of proof, focusing especially on Khan’s lack of understanding and knowledge of the immigration charges that were brought against him more than 20 years ago. A key question in the case will be just how material those facts would have been had they been known to authorities when he applied for citizenship. The answer isn’t obvious either way.
While Khan admitted that he tried to enter the United States illegally, “the question is to what degree do we want to devote government resources to denaturalize him 20-plus years later, especially when part of it is the government’s fault,” said Amanda Frost, a law professor at American University who attended the trial.
Extraordinary in its implications, the case was as banal as any other proceeding playing out at the Jacksonville courthouse. Justice Department attorneys sought to undermine the credibility of Khan and his family members, while Khan’s lawyers tried to poke holes in the government’s case. U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Barksdale, who in February issued a detailed order denying both sides’ requests to resolve the case prior to trial, listened intently to the testimony and independently questioned three of the four witnesses. Her questions, which largely appeared intended to clarify the statements of witnesses following what was at times confusing and contradictory testimony, focused on whether Khan knowingly withheld information in his immigration applications and interviews.
To Khan, his case is about his family — about being able to remain an American citizen, to live in the United States, and to support his wife. “We’re gonna fight. My family counts on me. I support them,” he told me.
He has become the face of the fight to define what it means to be an American in the age of Donald Trump.
Khan’s case is about much more than his family, though. He has become the face of the fight to define what it means to be an American in the age of Donald Trump. He is one of three people who were handpicked by the Justice Department when it announced in September 2017 that it would attempt to revoke the citizenship of people who were allegedly wrongly naturalized. The targets — two of whom are from Pakistan, the third being from India — were identified under an Obama-era initiative called Operation Janus. Khan is the only one of those three targets to fight back against the federal government’s case, making the stakes for the government particularly high. (A fourth Operation Janus case, U.S. v. Rahman, was filed in February 2018 and appears to be heading toward trial. Humayun Kabir Rahman is a native of Bangladesh.)
A government victory in Khan’s case would likely embolden the Trump administration to expand its denaturalization efforts, which it seems poised to do. In a January 2018 press release, the Justice Department wrote that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “has stated its intention to refer approximately an additional 1,600 for prosecution.” While the Justice Department issued press releases regarding only four Operation Janus cases, it has been pursuing a number of criminal and civil denaturalization cases. Seth Freed Wessler, writing for New York Times Magazine, has done the most extensive reporting on these efforts, finding that over the last two years, the total number of denaturalization cases has nearly doubled over the total number of cases filed between 2004 and 2016.
The Trump administration’s tactics bring the United States into an era of stripping citizenship not seen in at least five decades. In the early- to mid-1900s, the federal government pursued denaturalization for racist and political reasons, even targeting U.S.-born citizens. That changed in 1967, when the Supreme Court vastly narrowed the potential uses of denaturalization. Since then, the federal government has mostly sought to take citizenship away from people who lied on their applications to conceal participation in war crimes or support for terrorists. (The language of the denaturalization statute is relatively broad, giving the executive branch leeway to pursue cases like the one against Khan.)
The efforts appear to be part of a strategy of “attrition through enforcement,” which seeks to discourage people from immigrating to the United States and to encourage self-deportation, argues Frost, who is writing a book on citizenship. “Attrition through enforcement originally targeted unauthorized immigration, but it can be equally effective as a means of reducing legal immigration to the United States,” Frost writes in “Alienating Citizens,” a forthcoming article in the Northwestern Law Review. “Aggressive use of denaturalization accomplishes that goal by sending the message that no immigrant has a safe and secure status and therefore, none can enjoy the ‘assumption of permanence’ that naturalized citizens had come to expect.”
Nearly three decades ago, Parvez Khan traveled to the United States to visit his brother, Suhail Khan, who had come to the U.S. as a visitor in 1986 and liked it so much that he decided to settle down. Parvez thought it would be too difficult to obtain a visa to the U.S., so he bought a passport that bore the name Mohammad Akhtar. As he attempted to enter the country at Los Angeles International Airport on December 7, 1991, immigration officials detected that the photo on the passport had been altered. They detained Khan, whose first language is Urdu and who spoke only a few words of English at the time. Khan was sent to a jail where he met a lawyer, Howard George Johnson, with whom he communicated through an Indian cellmate who spoke Punjabi. In a three-way conversation in which no two people spoke the same language, it was inevitable that something would get lost in translation, and the result was an asylum application that bore the wrong name (Jaweed Khan) and year of birth, among other errors.
The legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service recognized that Khan could not speak English. “No statement was taken from subject due to the subjects [sic] inability to speak and understand sufficient English, and the lack of a translator,” reads a December 1991 memo in Khan’s immigration file.
Parvez Khan was released on a $2,500 bond that Suhail Khan had paid for by sending money to Johnson. Parvez traveled by Greyhound bus to Miami, where Suhail lived. Though Parvez was scheduled for an immigration court hearing on his asylum case, he never himself received notice of the hearing, and Johnson, the lawyer, failed to notify him. As a result, an immigration court entered an in absentia order of deportation against Khan on February 26, 1992. Johnson, who is now dead, was suspended by the California Bar for misconduct, partially for his failure to communicate with clients.
“The question is to what degree do we want to devote government resources to denaturalize him 20-plus years later?”
Khan ultimately decided to live in Florida with his brother. In 1997, he met Betty Louise Pope, who goes by her middle name, Louise. They married in January 1998, and one week after their wedding, he applied for a green card on the basis of his marriage to a U.S. citizen. The application remained pending for nearly four years, but he was granted permanent resident status in November 2001. After four years, he applied for U.S. citizenship and was naturalized in 2006. At no point in those application processes or interviews did Khan disclose that he had attempted to enter the United States on an altered passport under a different name in 1991. Because he was not aware that an immigration judge ordered his deportation in 1992, he did not disclose that either.
Immigration officials took Khan’s fingerprints when he first arrived in Los Angeles in 1991, though those records were apparently not digitized. As a result, in addition to Khan’s failure to disclose his detention by immigration officials when he first entered the country, the federal government says it was not aware of his prior deportation order when he applied for permanent resident status and citizenship. Khan’s immigration history came to the Obama administration’s attention because of Operation Janus, through which the Department of Homeland Security identified about 315,000 cases in which some fingerprint data was missing from a central database and combed through those cases to find discrepancies.
Khan was stopped and interrogated by Customs and Border Protection officers at the San Francisco and Abu Dhabi airports in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The interrogations were the seeming result of DHS finding Khan’s original file using his newly digitized fingerprints. The CBP agents who interviewed him in San Francisco allege, according to a deposition taken in Khan’s case, that he volunteered to them that he had tried to enter the United States on an altered passport in 1991. Khan says that the CBP officers relayed the sequence of events to him, and he just admitted that it was true. He says he did not remember the name on the passport — Mohammad Akhtar — until immigration officials reminded him of it. (Notably, even though DHS officials questioned Khan about records they identified under Operation Janus, the Obama administration did not seek to denaturalize him or others identified under the initiative.)
The lawyers collectively spent more than three hours interviewing Khan, who wore a dark gray jacket and gray pants and played with his glasses as he leaned forward in his seat. Barksdale, the judge, independently questioned each of the witnesses except for Suhail Khan. She asked Parvez Khan about his decision to come to the United States on a fraudulent passport and his marriage to Louise, in addition to questions about his applications for permanent residence and citizenship.
At times, the judge appeared frustrated with attorneys on either side. She repeatedly asked Petty, the Justice Department attorney, to clarify his questions to Khan. As Petty questioned Khan about answers he gave on his immigration applications, Barksdale also asked the attorney to approach Khan and point out specifically what he was asking about. She also appeared exasperated with Khan’s defense team, which was severely outgunned at trial, pressing LaVigne to clarify his line of questioning of Pellechia.
“She seemed very hands-off,” Frost said of Barksdale. “I think that’s her style; I respect that, but [the Justice Department’s questioning of Suhail Khan] was disturbing to watch.”
Belsan’s involvement is perhaps an indication that the full force of the Justice Department is pushing for a victory in Khan’s case. Belsan is the chief of the Office of Immigration Litigation’s National Security and Affirmative Litigation Unit, which means that he oversees all of the Justice Department’s denaturalization cases. While Belsan’s name was on pretrial paperwork, Petty was the attorney primarily involved with the case. On March 22, however, Belsan officially entered the case as an attorney of record. On Tuesday, he handled the questioning of Pellechia and Louise Khan. Asked by The Intercept whether he typically attends and participates in denaturalization trials, Belsan declined to answer and directed questions to a Justice Department spokesperson. The Justice Department declined to answer The Intercept’s questions about Belsan’s participation and the number of denaturalization cases it is currently pursuing.
His evasiveness is part of a pattern by the federal government to remain tight-lipped about its denaturalization efforts.
His evasiveness is part of a pattern by the federal government to remain tight-lipped about its denaturalization efforts, despite initially loudly announcing these cases in one-sided press releases. One of the four people who sat in the courtroom gallery to observe the trial appeared to be a government official; she stood and conversed with the Justice Department lawyers before and after the trial. Yet when I approached her, the woman tried to ignore me and refused to even identify herself. (Frost, along with a law clerk for Barksdale, were the other trial attendees.)
The federal government has sought to limit the public’s understanding of denaturalization efforts in other ways too. In PACER, the online service that allows the public to access information about federal cases, the majority of the documents in the ongoing denaturalization cases are under lock, which means that they cannot be viewed online. (Ironically, even the government’s complaints against the defendants that were linked to in Justice Department press releases are inaccessible via PACER.) The only way for members of the public to view the records in these cases is to visit a federal court in the district in which the cases are pending and review the documents at a computer terminal there.
It will be several months before Barksdale issues a decision. She asked both parties to submit what is known as a proposed order with findings of fact and proposed conclusions of law by June 10. After that, Barksdale will schedule closing arguments in the case, and she said she will likely issue her decision within a month of those arguments.
This week’s proceedings were a major change of pace for Khan, a 62-year-old truck driver who spends 11 hours on average behind the wheel every day, driving 600 miles. He travels across the country, and in fact, prefers long trips to short ones, he said over dinner on Monday night, speaking loudly and gesturing with his hands. He was much quieter on the witness stand on Tuesday, though, listening carefully to the questions asked of him, answering directly, and at times telling the Justice Department lawyers that he was confused by their questions, especially when they used legal terminology.
Khan is his family’s sole breadwinner; his wife, Louise, spends much of her time caring for the couple’s grandchildren, who are 6, 4, and 2 years old. At trial, Louise testified that the family would suffer if Khan were to be deported; Justice Department lawyers said her testimony was irrelevant to the case, and Barksdale agreed. Frost, the American University law professor, said that despite it being legally true that Louise’s testimony was irrelevant, “that’s something the government should consider when deciding whether to bring a case.”
When I met the family on Monday, Louise was wearing a camouflage hoodie over a T-shirt that read “Made in America 2017” and was emblazoned with the American flag, her long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was relatively subdued over the course of our meal. She didn’t speak much, and when she did, she spoke mostly to her husband, who was seated to her right. At one point, however, she looked to LaVigne and asked whether there was a possibility that Khan would be deported to Pakistan.
“I believe that’s what they’re trying to do,” LaVigne responded, before explaining the drawn-out process that would have to occur before a deportation became conceivable. Nothing is going to happen tomorrow, he assured the family, noting that it would probably be several months before Barksdale issued her order, which would almost certainly result in an appeal. (LaVigne intends to file an appeal if Barksdale rules against his client, and he expects the government to do the same.) “It could go to the Supreme Court,” LaVigne told Louise Khan. “Wow,” she said, her brown eyes widening.
I asked Khan what the last year and a half has been like, with the threat of losing his citizenship looming over his head. “OK,” he said blankly. “What can I do?”
“You can fight,” LaVigne responded.
“I have my family here, my wife,” Khan continued. “I love my grandchildren.”
“You can fight,” LaVigne said once more.
“I can fight,” Khan told me.