The undoing of a nation

Tribal disenrollment, like Trump’s efforts to denaturalize American citizens, is just another way to make the country whiter.

 

Under the direction of President Donald Trump, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service task force is working to strip Americans of their citizenship, attacking immigration through a process known as denaturalization. Denaturalization — taking away citizenship in court — allows the president to double-down on his insistence that the system is broken. His administration has increased the use of civil denaturalization, which requires a lower standard of proof than criminal denaturalization and has no statute of limitations. That means naturalized citizens are at risk of losing their citizenship and being deported forever. It’s hard not to see the move as part of an attempt to make America whiter. Even if that’s not the official reason, it’s certainly energizing those longing for mythical, whiter times.

At the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, the immigration files of naturalized citizens , and asylum applications are scoured for evidence, even unintentional errors, to justify taking away citizenship. This strategy isn’t just a defining characteristic of the Trump administration, however; some tribal governments share a similar goal. In Indian Country, it’s not known as denaturalization; it’s called disenrollment.

Mia Prickett, center, a client of Broadman's, shares a collection of family photos with her great aunts Marilyn Portwood, right, and Val Alexander, left, in 2014. Though their family member signed the 1855 treaty establishing the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon, the tribe unsuccessfully attempted to disenroll Prickett and 79 relatives because they no longer satisfy new enrollment requirements.
Don Ryan/AP Images

Non-Indian firms, known as , are hired to help tribal politicians figure out who will be easiest to eliminate from a particular tribe’s membership rolls. When you’re trying to track how much “Indian blood” a person has, or which ancestor they descend from, it’s easy to find gaps in 19th century records, especially those involving matriarchs, whose lives often aren’t reflected in legal records. Tribes disenroll members for various reasons, including old family disputes and racism — even a desire to reduce the number of people who can lay claim to collective financial resources. There is no unified theory of disenrollment. It is a form of civil entropy whose logical conclusion is the elimination of Indian tribes.   

The civil denaturalization of U.S. citizens and the disenrollment of tribal citizens are actions that share DNA in that both deprive individuals of their identity and citizenship. Both actions sow political insecurity in their respective targets and in “other” individuals for political reasons, and eventually both are likely to result in a whiter America. These practices must end, and those responsible should be held accountable.

The United States has been denaturalizing its citizens for decades. In the 20th century, more than 145,000 U.S. citizens, both “native born” and naturalized, were stripped of their citizenship, often for political reasons, including a desire to purge communists.  But the tide began to turn in the mid-1900s, and in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court made denaturalization more difficult, holding that “Citizenship is no light trifle to be jeopardized any moment Congress decides to do so under the name of one of its general or implied grants of power.”

While Trump’s push to denaturalize citizens may appear to be an aggressive reflection of this political era, the move actually gained force during the Obama administration, when the Department of Justice filed an average of 11 denaturalization cases annually. , though, cases have exploded; approximately 2,500 cases have been identified for possible denaturalization. Twice as many as denaturalization cases were filed in federal district court in 2017 as in 2016.

Disenrollment also mushroomed under the Obama administration. Throughout the 20th century, the federal government asserted authority over tribal disenrollment activities.  But in the spring of 2010, the Interior Department suddenly assumed a hands-off approach to disenrollment, citing tribal self-determination. That was an overcorrection that proved disastrous.  Rampant disenrollment ensued, resulting in the exile of thousands of Indians throughout the country. By the fall of 2016, the feds reversed course, taking deterrent actions at the Elem Indian Colony in California and the Nooksack Tribe in Washington, but the damage had been done. The jury is still out on the Trump administration’s approach to disenrollment, but so far there’s been no attempt to help disenrollees.

Tribal attempts to eliminate the allegedly impure, the “erroneously enrolled” and the landless reflect Trump’s efforts to police citizenship. Whether driven by greed, their own insecurities about identity, or a pseudo-fascist drive to “purify” a tribal community, tribal politicians who disenroll members encourage tribal factions that seek to “other” Indians within their own communities. Ironically, disenrollment requires today’s politicians to ignore and dishonor the decisions of past tribal leaders.  Like the anti-immigrant enthusiasm that has solidified Trump’s base, tribal politicians exploit anti-“other” sentiments and populism to push disenrollment agendas.

But tribal councilmembers are empowered by their constituents. Disenrollment politicians do not force tribal populations to cannibalize themselves; that would deprive Indigenous people of agency in a way unknown in any other aspect of tribal political life. Members of tribes who disenroll their kin bear responsibility for their leaders’ actions, just as American citizens share the blame for illegal denaturalization.

Denaturalization has already delegitimized American citizenship by making it something that can be taken away for political gain. Similarly, disenrollment diminishes tribal nations by making tribal membership an identity that can be erased when politically expedient.  Both tribal members and U.S. citizens should demand more from their elected leaders and begin treating citizenship as the sacred foundation of good, representative government.

Anthony Broadman is a partner with the law firm of in Seattle. His practice focuses on federal Indian law.

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