Naturalized Americans could have their citizenship revoked thanks to a computer program that searches for concerning activity – with broad categories including anything deemed ‘derogatory’.
The program, called ATLAS, is used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
DHS stated on their website in a November update that ATLAS was created ‘to automate, streamline, and support accurate exchange of data’ among immigration authorities and the DHS, and ‘to support biometric and biographic-based screening and vetting of immigration requests.’
The system uses data such as fingerprints, social media profiles and the FBI’s terror watchlist to run cross-checks and unify processing.
But privacy campaigners and immigration advocates argue that it is open to abuse, and deploys too broad a range of datasets – posing an unnecessary threat to millions of immigrants. Many of those targeted will be Muslim, activists say.
‘ATLAS should be considered as suspect until it is shown not to generate unfair, arbitrary, and discriminatory results,’ said Laura Bingham, a lawyer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which filed Freedom of Information requests to try and obtain more details of the program.
Immigrants who were deported from the U.S. are seen returning to Guatemala on August 19. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is using a computer program to analyze the data from immigrants’ records, but advocates say it is too broad a net and flags people unfairly
She told The Intercept: ‘From what we are able to scrutinize in terms of the end results – like the disparate impact of denaturalization based on national origin – there is ample reason to consider ATLAS a threat to naturalized citizens.’
The program, housed on Amazon’s servers as of last year, is shrouded in secrecy and DHS refused to answer many of the questions posed by Open Society Justice Initiative and Muslim Advocates, who jointly filed the FOIA requests.
ATLAS is housed on servers powered by Amazon
DHS would not explain how exactly ATLAS works or what rules it uses to determine when an immigrant should be flagged to potentially have their citizenship revoked.
They would not say how many immigrants have had their U.S. citizenship rescinded as a result of ATLAS’s research, but an October 2019 press release from the DHS’s Citizenship and Immigration Services division (USCIS) reported that the program that year processed more than 16 million ‘screenings’ and generated 124,000 ‘automated potential fraud, public safety and national security detections requiring further analysis and manual review by USCIS officers.’
Immigrants are put through the ATLAS system when a migrant ‘presents him or herself’ to the USCIS.
That can be when ‘new derogatory information is associated with the individual in one or more U.S. Government systems’ – an example given is detecting ‘fraud patterns in immigration benefit filings … either pre- or post-adjudication.’
Immigration advocates filed FOIA requests to try and find more information from DHS, but still do not have an accurate picture of how ATLAS works
The DHS states, according to The Intercept: ‘ATLAS contains a rules engine that applies pattern-based algorithms to look for indicators of fraud, public safety, and national security concerns.’
Deborah Choi of Muslim Advocates said that ATLAS was designed to find reasons for revoking citizenship.
‘The whole point of ATLAS is to screen and investigate so that the government can deny applications or refer for criminal or civil or immigration enforcement,’ she told The Intercept.
‘The purpose of the secret rules and predictive analytics and algorithms are to find things to investigate.’
People who ATLAS flags for further inspection will then have their cases investigated by DHS employees.
Joe Biden was elected on a promise to make the immigration authorities more humane and accountable, and in his first week in office issued a directive to ‘ensure that these authorities are not used excessively or inappropriately.’
The February 2 declaration ordered the creation a Naturalization Working Group, which had a 90 day deadline for presenting Biden with ‘a strategy outlining steps the Federal Government should take to promote naturalization’.
Biden wrote: ‘Consistent with our character as a Nation of opportunity and of welcome, it is essential to ensure that our laws and policies encourage full participation by immigrants, including refugees, in our civic life; that immigration processes and other benefits are delivered effectively and efficiently; and that the Federal Government eliminates sources of fear and other barriers that prevent immigrants from accessing government services available to them.
‘Our Nation is enriched socially and economically by the presence of immigrants, and we celebrate with them as they take the important step of becoming United States citizens.
‘The Federal Government should develop welcoming strategies that promote integration, inclusion, and citizenship, and it should embrace the full participation of the newest Americans in our democracy.’
Their report details ways in which naturalization processes can be improved, such as eliminating scams and encouraging training for the citizenship tests.