Supreme Court Limits Power To Revoke Citizenship

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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The Supreme Court Thursday strengthened protections for naturalized American citizens, finding that they cannot be stripped of citizenship for trivial misstatements made in the course of their naturalization process.

A unanimous Court rejected the government’s contention that it can strip a naturalized citizen of citizenship for giving false information on immigration forms, even if that information is not relevant to the government’s ultimate decision to grant citizenship.

“We hold that the government must establish that an illegal act by the defendant played some role in her acquisition of citizenship,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her opinion for the Court. Kagan was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Neil Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Samuel Alito wrote an opinion concurring only in the judgement.

The case concerned an ethnic Serb named Divna Maslenjak who fled do the United States in 1998 as a result of the Bosnian War. Maslenjak told immigration officials that she feared persecution because her husband fled compulsory service in the Bosnian Serb Army (BSA). Six years later, when filling out a citizenship form, she denied giving “false or misleading information” to a government official while applying for an immigration benefit. She was naturalized in 2007.

But Maslenjak had in fact lied while applying for refugee status in 1998. Contrary to her claims, her husband served as an officer in the BSA and participated in the Srebrenica massacre, which left 8,000 Serbian Muslims dead. Maslenjak was convicted of obtaining her citizenship illegally and deported in short order.

At the Supreme Court, her lawyers argued that her lie was immaterial to the naturalization process. Citizenship, they say, cannot be revoked on the basis of an immaterial false statement.

The federal law under which Maslenjak was charged makes a “violation[] of law in the course of procuring naturalization,” illegal.

“What, then, does that whole phrase mean?” Kagan asks. “The most natural understanding is that the illegal act must have somehow contributed to the obtaining of citizenship.”

The Court declined to make a final determination with regard to Maslenjak’s case, but explained that juries must determine whether a false statement directly and causally implicated the final decision to award citizenship.

“So the issue a jury must decide in a case like this one is whether a false statement sufficiently altered those processes as to have influenced an award of citizenship,” the Court announced.

The April arguments in Maslenjak’s case were among the most colorful of the term.

“Some time ago, outside the statute of limitations, I drove 60 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone,” the Chief Justice said, to laughter. “I was not arrested.”

“Now, you say that if I answer that question ‘No,’ 20 years after I was naturalized as a citizen, you can knock on my door and say, ‘Guess what, you’re not an American citizen after all,'” he continued. “Is that right?”

Robert Parker, the Justice Department lawyer arguing the case told the Chief that immigration authorities expect applicants to disclose all convictions.

“Oh come on,” an incredulous Roberts responded.

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