The federal government lost a four-year battle to strip U.S. citizenship from a Kansas HVAC specialist on Thursday, with a federal court ruling that the Department of Justice had failed to make the case that Afaq Ahmed Malik had improperly obtained it.

The case against Malik, who runs a heating and cooling repair company in the suburbs of Kansas City, was brought in 2015 and is one of multiple attempts by the federal government in recent years to strip citizenship from everyday people living in the U.S. without incident, but who are found with retroactive irregularities in their application process.

In a 17-page order, U.S. District Judge Carlos Murguia of the District of Kansas wrote that the federal government failed to meet the high burden of proof required to strip citizenship. “The overriding issue with plaintiff’s case is a lack of reliable, clear, unequivocal, and convincing evidence about what happened during defendant’s immigration-related interviews and what information was material to the interviewers,” Murguia wrote.

The Justice Department’s loss in this case, which was brought under President Barack Obama, comes as the Trump administration appears to be testing the use of denaturalization as a weapon in its war on immigrants. Much of the Trump administration’s efforts are rooted in an initiative that began in the late stages of the Bush administration, then grew during the Obama years, seeking to identify people who might have been naturalized despite deportation orders or criminal proceedings. The project relies on newly digitized fingerprints that have allowed more in-depth searches of government databases.

The Intercept has previously reported on one of those cases, in which Donald Trump’s Justice Department has expended incredible resources to revoke citizenship from Parvez Manzoor Khan, a 62-year-old truck driver who has been a U.S. citizen for 13 years without incident. Over the last couple of years, the Justice Department has trumpeted its efforts to revoke citizenship from people like Khan. In a 2019 budget request, Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked for $207.6 million to focus on these efforts, in part to review 700,000 cases for possible denaturalization.

“We used to think denaturalization was for war criminals and Nazis,” said Matthew Hoppock, Malik’s attorney. Malik’s “is one of the cases where they’ve shown they’ll bring these cases against — this guy doesn’t have any criminal history at all; he owns his own business; he’s a peaceful, kind, gentle person; and they brought a case against him for what appears to be a simple mistake.”

Malik’s case shares some commonalities with ones originated during the Trump administration, involving individuals who were not entirely forthcoming on their applications for permanent residence and citizenship. Additionally, Malik is a native of Pakistan, and the targets that the Trump administration has loudly pursued under Operation Janus are natives of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mr. Malik was from Pakistan. We saw in Operation Janus that they were going to go after people from special-interest countries,” Hoppock said. He was referring to a 2016 report about the initiative — which became known as Operation Janus — which found that the Department of Homeland Security was specifically scrutinizing the cases from “special-interest countries,” defined only as countries “that are of concern to the national security of the United States.”

The Justice Department’s case against Malik centered on the fact that he did not disclose a previous marriage on his application for permanent residence — which he filed on the basis of his marriage to a U.S. citizen, Venita McIntosh — or his subsequent application for citizenship.

Malik married a woman named Kaneez Fatima in Pakistan in 1995, and he has three children with her. He and Kaneez divorced in 2000, and he came to the U.S. and married McIntosh later that year. He became a lawful permanent resident on the basis of that marriage, and applied for citizenship in 2003; that application stalled for five years, and he was naturalized in 2008.

Malik did not disclose on his application for permanent residence or citizenship that he had been married to Fatima or that he had children. The Justice Department claimed that Malik was still married to Fatima at the time he became a permanent resident, though he produced a divorce record to counter that claim. During the October trial, the Justice Department brought two witnesses to trial to testify that Malik’s divorce records were forged; however, the court did not find their testimony credible. (In the pretrial stages, the court sanctioned federal government attorneys for not turning over evidence related to its investigation into Malik’s divorce decree.)

Murguia rejected the federal government’s claims that Malik had procured permanent resident status and citizenship illegally because he lied about a material detail, finding that the Justice Department failed to prove that Malik intended to defraud immigration authorities or that he would have been ineligible for citizenship had he been forthcoming about his previous marriage. The fact that Malik withheld information was not, on its own, enough, Murguia found.

The case apparently came to the federal government’s attention when Malik petitioned in 2011 for visas for two of his children to be able to live in the United States. An immigration officer must have connected the dots and noted that Malik was applying for kids who were not included on his citizenship application, Hoppock said. “They made a lot of logical jumps from that to ‘He never had a divorce in Pakistan.’”

Malik said he did not disclose his previous marriage because he hadn’t told McIntosh that he had been married previously. “While that’s a stupid thing for someone to do to their spouse, it’s not a reason to deny naturalization,” Hoppock said. “If he had told the truth, that wouldn’t have changed the outcome.”

At the end of his four-year ordeal, Malik was feeling quite emotional. “He was crying,” Hoppock said. “He’s relieved. It’s a four-year process where they’ve accused him of some really bad stuff. They accused him of having a fraudulent marriage and of forging documents. None of that is true. This is all public record. If you Google him, his name comes up. I think he’s feeling a lot of different emotions. “