Naturalized Americans could have their citizenship revoked thanks to a computer program that searches for related activities – with broad categories encompassing anything deemed “derogatory.”
The program, called ATLAS, is used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and is hosted on servers owned by web e-commerce giant Amazon.
DHS stated on their website in a November update that ATLAS was established “to automate, streamline and support data exchange between immigration authorities and DHS,” and “to support biometric and biographical screening and screening of immigration applications.”
But they have come under fire for refusing to provide more details about how citizens are being flagged for possible denaturalization.
The system uses data such as fingerprints, social media profiles and the FBI’s terror list to cross-check and unify processing.
But privacy activists and immigration advocates argue that it is open to abuse and uses too wide a range of data sets, posing an unnecessary threat to millions of immigrants. Many of the targets will be Muslim, activists say.
“ATLAS should be considered suspicious until it is shown not to produce unfair, arbitrary and discriminatory results,” said Laura Bingham, an attorney with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which filed freedom of information requests to try to obtain more details about the program.
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She said The Interception: ‘Based on what we can examine in terms of end results – such as the divergent impact of denaturalization based on national origin – there is ample reason to view ATLAS as a threat to naturalized citizens.’
The program, which has been on Amazon’s servers since last year, is shrouded in secrecy, and DHS declined to answer many of the questions posed by the Open Society Justice Initiative and Muslim Advocates, who jointly filed the FOIA requests.
ATLAS is housed on servers powered by Amazon
The DHS would not explain exactly how ATLAS works or what rules it uses to determine when an immigrant must be flagged to potentially have their citizenship revoked.
They won’t say how many immigrants have had their US citizenship revoked as a result of the ATLAS investigation.
But an October 2019 press release from DHS’s Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) division reported that the program processed more than 16 million “screenings” that year and generated 124,000 “automated detections of potential fraud, public safety and national security.” requiring further analysis and manual review by USCIS officers.”
Immigrants are routed through the ATLAS system when a migrant “applies” to the USCIS.
That could be when “new derogatory information is associated with the individual in one or more US government systems” – an example given is detecting “patterns of fraud in the filing of immigration benefits … either before or after the verdict.” ‘.
Immigration advocates filed FOIA requests to try and find more information from DHS but still have no accurate picture of how ATLAS works
According to The Intercept, DHS states: “ATLAS contains a rules engine that uses pattern-based algorithms to search for indicators of fraud, public safety and national security concerns.”
Deborah Choi of Muslim Advocates said ATLAS was designed to find reasons to revoke citizenship.
“The whole point of ATLAS is to screen and investigate so the government can deny or refer applications for criminal or civil or immigration enforcement,” she told The Intercept.
“The purpose of the secret rules and predictive analytics and algorithms is to find things to investigate.”
People flagged by ATLAS for further investigation will then have their cases investigated by DHS staff.
Joe Biden was elected with a pledge to make immigration authorities more humane and accountable, and in his first week in office, he issued a guideline to ‘ensure that these authorities are not used excessively or inappropriately’.
The Feb. 2 statement ordered the creation of a Naturalization Working Group, which had a 90-day deadline to present Biden “a strategy outlining the steps the federal government should take to promote naturalization.”
Biden wrote: “Consistent with our character as a nation of opportunity and welcome, it is essential to ensure that our laws and policies encourage the full participation of immigrants, including refugees, in our civic life; that immigration processes and other benefits are delivered effectively and efficiently; and that the federal government removes sources of fear and other barriers that prevent immigrants from accessing government services available to them.
“Our nation has been socially and economically enriched by the presence of immigrants, and we celebrate with them as they take the important step of becoming citizens of the United States.
“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 describes ways in which naturalization processes can be improved, such as eliminating scams and encouraging training for the citizenship tests.