Federal authorities on Friday arrested an Ethiopian-American man accused of hiding his record of human rights abuses to gain entry into the United States and eventual citizenship.
Mergia Negussie Habteyes, 58, stands charged with lying to U.S. immigration authorities to enter as a refugee. Eventually, he gained permanent residency and then became a citizen, according to the indictment.
“Negussie allegedly concealed his role in persecuting Ethiopian prisoners for their political opinions during that country’s so-called Red Terror period when he applied for, and ultimately obtained, U.S. citizenship,” Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski said in a prepared statement.
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“As this case demonstrates, the Justice Department will not allow the United States to become a safe haven for human-rights violators, and we will continue to aggressively prosecute those who seek to exploit our immigration system through fraud and deceit.”
If convicted, Negussie could be stripped of his citizenship. Prosecutors would have to pursue that in a separate proceeding.
“There’s nothing automatic about naturalization,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).
The indictment against Negussie alleges that he falsely maintained that he never persecuted people because of their political opinions. In fact, authorities contend, he served as a civilian interrogator in the Higher 3 prison in Ethiopia during a period in the late 1970s known as the Red Terror.
“This indictment reflects the government’s dedication to investigating and prosecuting criminal immigration cases, including those involving alleged human-rights violators.”
In that role, Negussie participated in the persecution — through brutality — of political prisoners, according to the indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia.
“Negussie sought to outrun his past by allegedly employing deception to fraudulently obtain United States citizenship,” U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger said in a statement. “This indictment reflects the government’s dedication to investigating and prosecuting criminal immigration cases, including those involving alleged human rights violators.”
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents looked into the case, with the support of the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center (HRVWCC). Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities said in March that since 2003, they had arrested 395 people accused of committing human-rights violations.
The task force, created in 2009, also had deported 835 known or suspected violators and “facilitated the departure” of 112 others at that time.
President Donald Trump’s administration has made a push to identify foreign-born citizens who lied during the naturalization process.
Last year, the Trump administration launched Operation Janus, an initiative to find such cheaters. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has identified more than 300,000 instances in which fingerprint data were missing from a government database.
Some of the people in those cases may have sought to circumvent criminal records that would have barred them from becoming citizens, according to government officials.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has indicated that it intends to refer about 1,600 cases for prosecution. In January, the operation got its first win when a federal judge revoked citizenship of an Indian native who filed a fraudulent asylum claim under a fake name.
USCIS Director Francis Cissna told the Associated Press in June that his agency was hiring several dozen lawyers and immigration officers to review cases of immigrants who were ordered deported and are suspected of using fake identities to later get green cards and citizenship through naturalization.
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The initiative has provoked criticism. Mae Ngai, a history professor at Columbia University, told National Public Radio (NPR) last month that the federal government has not revoked citizenship since it targeted communists during the 1950s.
“And I think most people would say that the Red Scare, or the McCarthy period, was not the nation’s proudest moment,” she said.
But Vaughan said immigrants have lost citizenship, even during President Barack Obama’s administration, after courts found that they hid war crimes from immigration authorities. She said it is indefensible to commit fraud in order to obtain citizenship.
But Vaughan said run-of-the-mill cases of fraud are harder to pursue than naturalized citizens revealed to be war criminals.
“They’re not usually a public safety threat … These are the hardest cases to prosecute,” she said.