When single mother Lilla Haiddar arrived in the U.S from Afghanistan with her two boys to escape Taliban oppression, she embellished her story in her bid to stay.
Nearly 19 years later, she likely will be stripped of her U.S. citizenship due to those lies.
A federal jury in Dallas convicted the Arlington woman on Monday of three counts, including committing lies of omission on two passport applications by not listing a previous name. The more serious charge of obtaining citizenship or naturalization unlawfully carries with it mandatory denaturalization, officials say.
Haiddar, a former U.S. Army interpreter, raised two sons in the U.S. and had a job at DFW International Airport for over three years, helping travelers. Her conviction is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $750,000. It also paves the way for Haiddar, 57, to be deported.
Her successful prosecution appears to be part of a stepped-up effort by the Trump administration to strip citizenship from naturalized Americans over a variety of infractions, including lying on government forms and to immigration officials.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, a court may revoke naturalization through a civil or criminal proceeding if their citizenship was “obtained through fraud or misrepresentation.” The Justice Department has filed a total of 228 civil “denaturalization” cases since 2008. Of those, nearly 100 were brought since 2017 when President Donald Trump entered the White House.
Trump has made immigration a signature issue of his administration. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently said it would begin investigating the citizenship files of 700,000 naturalized Americans. And ICE has asked for money to hire 300 more agents as part of the effort. The U.S. has about 20 million naturalized citizens, according to the Pew Research Center.
In the past, denaturalizations were rare and usually reserved for terrorists, war criminals, human rights violators, sex offenders and violent criminals, according to government reports and immigration attorneys.
Critics say cases of fraud in citizenship applications are rare and not worth the resources the Trump administration is committing to combat it. They allege that the effort is part of a political agenda that has nothing to do with safety or security.
“They’re being far more aggressive on denaturalization cases,” said Lance Curtright, a San Antonio immigration attorney. “I hope it doesn’t have a chilling effect on people naturalizing.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The jury in Haiddar’s case returned its verdict after a four-day trial.
Prosecutors say the Afghan native flew to the U.S. in 2001 on a temporary transit visa and was supposed to leave for Canada the same day but never did. Instead, she applied for asylum under a different name, Lilla Haiddar, and told a false story of how she made it to New York, prosecutors said.
Haddiar told immigration officials she flew from Pakistan to Mexico and then was secreted across the border into the U.S. with the help of an uncle to escape oppression in her native country. Haiddar listed two different names and dates of birth on U.S. documents, court records show.
“We have no idea who this woman is,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tiffany H. Eggers told a magistrate judge during an April 2019 detention hearing.
Haiddar was taken into custody following the jury verdict. Her sentencing is scheduled for July.
The Justice Department on Feb. 26 announced the creation of a “Denaturalization Section” in its immigration office to “bring justice to terrorists, war criminals, sex offenders, and other fraudsters who illegally obtained naturalization.” A department official told The New York Times that those who commit serious violations of the law would be a priority.
Some cases, like Haiddar’s, have involved lying on government paperwork. And the government is using high-tech methods to find violators. In Haiddar’s case, facial recognition software snared her in 2018 when she applied to renew her passport.
When you lie, it can affect your “good moral character,” which is a qualification for citizenship, Curtright said. A lie could also be material, or relevant, if it “cut off some lines of inquiry that might have disqualified you from asylum,” he said.
Fleeing the Taliban
Prosecutors say Haiddar obtained C-1 transit visas in May 2001 for herself and her two sons under the name Marufa Khashim Surgul. Transit visas allow travelers “safe passage” through an intermediary country, according to court records. She received the visas at the U.S. embassy in Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, court records say.
The following month, she and her sons arrived by plane at JFK International Airport in New York with the visas. They were scheduled to leave for Canada the same day but never did, prosecutors said.
Using the name, Lilla Haiddar, she applied for asylum in August 2001 and claimed to have fled Afghanistan “after Taliban soldiers came to her home,” the federal complaint said.
She told U.S. officials she traveled to Pakistan and eventually flew to Mexico City, arriving in June 2001. From there, she said she was driven to New York by an uncle, according to court records. An asylum officer met with her and denied her application, deeming it “not credible,” court records say.
Haiddar — a moderate Muslim from the Tajik ethnic minority — went before an immigration judge in Dallas in 2002 and testified under oath that she “feared returning to Afghanistan” due to a “well-founded fear of future persecution… on account of her religious beliefs,” according to court records.
The judge granted her application, and she later became a lawful permanent resident, as is permitted under asylum law, court records say.
Haiddar applied for citizenship in March 2011 and it was granted several months later, court records say. She applied for a U.S. passport five days after that, resulting in the first count against her of making a false statement in a passport application, records show. Specifically, Haiddar did not disclose in her application that she had used another name, according to the indictment.
After obtaining her passport, Haiddar “repeatedly traveled to the Middle East,” to such countries as Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan, federal court records say.
Eggers said Haiddar traveled so frequently, her passport book filled up with visa stamps. So she applied to renew her passport early — in November 2018 — resulting in the second false statement count against her, according to court records.
She was caught when her 2018 passport renewal application was “flagged” for a match with her 2001 transit visa application under her previous name, according to a federal complaint. The Bureau of Consular Affairs’ facial recognition software helped make the match using photographs from the applications, which bore a “very close resemblance,” records said.
A federal complaint contains her photo for her transit visa with a different name, as well as more recent photos for her passport under the name, Lilla Haiddar. In her two passport application forms, she was asked to list “all other names you have used.” She left both blank.
Haiddar was interviewed at the Dallas office of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service on March 15, 2018 during which she denied ever using another name, the federal complaint said. Haiddar told agents her father paid her uncle $20,000 to smuggle her out of Afghanistan and into the U.S., the complaint said.
“Had the defendant not taken the steps prior to her interview for naturalization on October 20, 2011, she never would have been eligible to apply for citizenship in the first place,” Eggers said in a court filing.
Haiddar began working at DFW International Airport in late 2016, after finding a job with an “aviation support company,” prosecutors said.
Her duties included helping passengers who needed interpreters to navigate the airport. She was given an identification badge that allowed her access to areas not available to non-travelers, Eggers said in the court filing.
Courtney Stamper, a federal public defender, said during Haiddar’s April detention hearing that her client was not a threat to anyone.
Haiddar, she said, helped prepare U.S. soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan to handle the customs and the culture there “in a time when our nation needed it the most.”
“And so the notion that somehow she’s the bogeywoman… is false, and it’s quite frankly bothersome,” Stamper said.
Eggers said in court documents that no matter how “horrific” conditions were for women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, it didn’t excuse Haiddar’s lies on immigration and passport forms as well as lies to an asylum officer, an immigration judge and federal law enforcement officers.
A defense witness, a professor of Islamic history, testified during the trial last week about Haiddar’s identification papers. The witness is an expert on “how the Taliban made it impossible for women to exercise control in their own affairs,” according to a defense filing.
Defense attorneys wrote that the professor would tell jurors “about how a potential alias would be a necessary component of any attempt to smuggle an unmarried woman from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan.”