During its final year, the Trump administration remained intent on advancing its hallmark anti-immigrant agenda, including by creating a new section within the Department of Justice focused on denaturalization — or revoking citizenship from immigrants who became U.S. citizens through the naturalization process. Records recently obtained by American Oversight through the Freedom of Information Act provide new insight into the organization of that section and the selection of its leadership.
The Denaturalization Section was created in February 2020 and announced with a press release that emphasized its intent to target “terrorists, war criminals, sex offenders, and other fraudsters who illegally obtained naturalization.” This was an escalation of earlier Trump administration efforts, including U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ 2018 announcement of the creation of an office focused on identifying Americans who may have used fake identities to obtain citizenship, as well as the targeting of some people who had been in the country for decades, but had, prior to their naturalization, committed less serious crimes than those listed above.
The creation of a Justice Department section devoted to stripping citizenship from naturalized Americans, even those who committed serious crimes, raised grave concerns that the government would use its denaturalization powers in an arbitrary or politicized way. Those fears were compounded by the efforts of top Trump administration officials to falsely tie immigration to crime, including through newsletters that amplified crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, the creation of the ICE Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, and even carefully crafted videos.
The records obtained by American Oversight show then-Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt circulated on Feb. 26, 2020, an internal announcement about the creation of a denaturalization section within the Office of Immigration Litigation (OIL). Hunt emphasized the office’s “great success” in prior denaturalization cases and said the new section would enable the department to “prioritize this important work and dedicate particular resources to it.” At some point, it appears to have been rebranded as the Enforcement Section. OIL’s website describes the Enforcement Section as the “principal Departmental authority to coordinate and handle civil denaturalization affirmative litigation” and lists its contact email address as [email protected]
The records American Oversight obtained also contain the job description for the new director of the section as well as the application of Tim Belsan, who assumed the role.
Belsan, a long-time DOJ lawyer who was then head of OIL’s National Security and Affirmative Litigation Unit, applied for the position on April 19, 2020. In his cover letter, he claimed “primary responsibility” for his office’s membership in the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center, a project within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that aims to prosecute and remove foreign people suspected of war crimes or human rights violations. Belsan also said that he “served as trial counsel for more civil denaturalization trials than anyone in the [Justice] Department” and “was the lead author for the Department’s monograph on the topic.”
Belsan also characterized himself as a “frequent lecturer” on denaturalization who was “passionate” about the process and was never content with “settling for the status quo.”
The records indicate that his interview took place on May 20. According to his LinkedIn profile, he became director of the Enforcement Section of the Office of Immigration Litigation in August and remains in that role.
Immigrant-rights groups have called for a rollback of Trump-era immigration policies, including the government’s denaturalization push, and say an immigration executive order signed by President Joe Biden on Feb. 2, 2021, is a “promising first step.” The order calls for the attorney general and the secretaries of state and homeland security to within 60 days “review policies and practices regarding denaturalization and passport revocation to ensure that these authorities are not used excessively or inappropriately.”
From travel bans and family separation to severe limits on asylum claims, the Trump administration unleashed some of the most extreme anti-immigration policies in modern history. There is still much more to uncover about the past administration’s actions — visit our Trump Accountability page to learn more.