A naturalized immigrant can’t be stripped of their citizenship for making false statements during the naturalization process that are irrelevant to an immigration official’s decision to grant or deny citizenship, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday, vacating a lower court’s decision.
“The Government must establish that an illegal act by the defendant played some role in her acquisition of citizenship,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the court’s opinion. “When the illegal act is a false statement, that means demonstrating that the defendant lied about facts that would have mattered to an immigration official.”
Kagan said allowing the government to revoke citizenship due to any lie, no matter how minor or irrelevant, would lead to absurd outcomes.
Justice Elena Kagan said immigrants seeking citizenship are confronted with all kinds of questions, including “Have you ever been in any way associated with any organization, association, fund, foundation, party, club, society or similar group?” and “Have you ever committed a crime or offense for which you were not arrested?”
“Suppose, for reasons of embarrassment or what have you, a person concealed her membership in an online support group or failed to disclose a prior speeding violation,” she said.
“Under the government’s view, a prosecutor could scour her paperwork and bring a charge on that meager basis, even many years after she became a citizen. That would give prosecutors nearly limitless leverage — and afford newly naturalized Americans precious little security.”
“The case centers on Divna Maslenjak, who entered the U.S. in 2000 as a refugee along with her husband and their two children. Maslenjak became a naturalized citizen in 2007 — but around the same time, she was found to have lied to U.S. officials when she said her husband had not participated in Bosnia’s civil war. In fact, he had served in a brigade that was involved in the notorious Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims in 1995.
During the original trial in a federal district court, a jury was told that making a false statement under oath to a government official was enough to revoke Maslenjak’s citizenship because of a law that makes it a crime for a person to “procure” naturalization “contrary to law.” After the 6th Circuit court affirmed the decision, the case went to the high court.”
“At oral argument, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed real reservations about stripping citizenship without proof of materiality,” NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported, “and the court has historically been reluctant to strip citizenship without the government meeting a high bar of proof.”
The statute against knowingly procuring naturalization contrary to U.S. law, Kagan wrote, “is not a tool for denaturalizing people who, the available evidence indicates, were actually qualified for the citizenship they obtained.”
“We have never read a statute to strip citizenship from someone who met the legal criteria for acquiring it,” Kagan added. “We will not start now.”