The next struggle for a Chinese-born woman at the center of a possible 2007 security breach at an Arizona counterterrorism center, stripped of her citizenship last year by a federal judge, could be a fight against deportation.
A new U.S.-China pact signed earlier this year could make it easier to deport Chinese nationals back to their native country. Yet the case to remove Xunmei “Grace” Li, 46, who in August dropped an appeal of her revoked citizenship, remains complicated for the U.S. government.
Espionage concerns loom over a debate among federal agencies about how to argue for her deportation in an immigration court – and whether to use potentially classified information against her, former officials say. But if the Obama administration doesn’t try to remove Li, it raises questions about why the government revoked her citizenship in the first place.
Li worked for a homeland security contractor that installed a facial recognition system in the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, an intelligence-sharing hub run by the state. A Chinese contractor, whom she helped recruit, worked on the program before he quietly left the country in 2007 with equipment and possibly data and other information that belonged to the Phoenix-based company, Hummingbird Defense Systems Inc.
His abrupt departure drew the attention of the FBI, which launched a counterintelligence probe, during which immigration officials learned that Li made false statements on her citizenship application.
Losing citizenship through denaturalization proceedings remains, for now, exceedingly rare, which made the case against Li even more curious. The Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation has nearly 200 open denaturalization cases across the country, according to a department spokeswoman. A U.S. district judge revoked Li’s citizenship in August 2014 after a bench trial in Arizona.
A judge’s order to revoke citizenship does not automatically lead to a person’s removal from the United States. But typically, immigration officials use it to push for deportation, said Peter S. Vincent, a former principal legal adviser for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
That’s because most government attempts to denaturalize a U.S. citizen stem from national security concerns, foreign espionage or gross human rights violations, he said.
Jennifer Elzea, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to comment on Li’s case or whether it involved national security matters. A Justice Department spokeswoman also declined to discuss Li specifically. She acknowledged that the department regularly works with intelligence and law enforcement agencies to revoke citizenship of known or suspected terrorists, human rights violators and others who pose a threat to public safety.
A former federal agent who had investigated Li said last year that the FBI suspected the Chinese native was involved in spying, an allegation she has adamantly denied.
The U.S. has not charged Li with espionage, though current and former government officials say national security interests fueled the government’s drive to prosecute her for the lesser crime of false statements on her naturalization application and take away her citizenship.
“That suggests to me there are deep and serious concerns about her involvement in espionage, and that has essentially caused an epic interagency struggle between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice,” said Vincent, who left Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2014. “Both no doubt have suspicions and want her out of the country, but the struggle is over how to do that.”
The current struggle between the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers on the possible declassification of national security information, which Vincent said could be critical to the government’s argument to an immigration judge that Li should be deported.
In his nearly six years as the top attorney for the immigration enforcement agency, Vincent recalled having a dozen or more discussions with FBI, intelligence and defense officials about what information could be declassified to bolster immigration charges.
“These sorts of debates go on all the time. It creates incredible tension between the departments and the agencies,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with it for decades, but it’s become a point of great debate and tension since 9/11. And it hasn’t gotten much better.”
If the two agencies can’t come to a timely agreement about how to release classified information in Li’s case, she could reapply for citizenship, Vincent said, effectively halting any effort to deport her.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has shifted priorities in recent years to focus on removing people who pose a threat to national security, violent criminals and recent border crossers. The Department of Homeland Security has pledged more compassionate reviews before splitting up families by deporting noncitizens.
But national security trumps that policy, Vincent said.
Li’s fate lies with the Obama administration, which must decide whether her case is a priority. Her immigration status now reverts to a legal resident because she received her green card in 1995. She also is the mother of two U.S.-born children, which could be a factor in immigration court.
Li, through her attorney, declined to comment.
“Grace and I spoke a long while about whether the government would initiate removal proceedings” before deciding to drop her appeal, said her attorney, Ben Wiesinger. As far as the likelihood of removal, he said, “I wouldn’t look at priorities. I’d look at the law.”
As of this week, the Executive Office for Immigration Review – the Justice Department agency that oversees immigration courts – had no record that the government was beginning deportation proceedings against Li.
Whether the government, in its decision not to pursue espionage charges, lacked evidence or didn’t want to disclose classified information remains unclear, but it was a different approach than several other cases involving Chinese-born U.S. citizens who have been accused of spying, only to see the cases against them unravel. That has spurred some to question whether the Justice Department has profiled the Chinese in such instances.
For years, China often stymied U.S. efforts to kick Chinese nationals out of the country by moving slowly to issue the necessary paperwork to travel. But with a recent agreement quietly made between Chinese and U.S. officials, sending criminals back to China might get easier.
At a March meeting in Beijing, U.S. and Chinese officials reached an understanding to improve how the countries work together to deport people back to China. Chinese experts travel to the U.S. to interview Chinese nationals who have been ordered deported to verify their identity and citizenship. The Chinese team first traveled in late June to conduct interviews.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently removed 16 Chinese nationals to China, all of whom were considered priorities because of criminal histories.
The crime to which Li pleaded guilty in 2009 – knowingly making false statements in gaining her U.S. citizenship in 2005 – might not be serious enough to get her deported. In the government’s effort to denaturalize Li, she also was accused of bigamy because she was married to two men at the same time, which immigration law designates as a crime of moral turpitude and a bar against citizenship.
Vincent, the former top attorney for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, speculated that the debate over how to deport Li is far from over.
“I’d put my money on the Department of Justice providing sufficient evidence of her activities in the United States in connection to Chinese intelligence that would allow her to be put in immigration proceedings,” he said. “But it might take awhile to achieve that goal.”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Andrew Becker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ABeckerCIR.