Supreme Court skeptical of broad power to revoke citizenship

Supreme Court skeptical of broad power to revoke citizenship
© Greg Nash

The Supreme Court appeared unconvinced Wednesday that the government should be able to strip a naturalized immigrant of their citizenship for having made any false statements during the naturalization process, regardless of their relevance. 

Chief Justice John Roberts said that, under the government’s reading of naturalization laws, he could be stripped of his citizenship for having answered no when asked on the naturalization form, “Have you ever committed, assisted in committing, or attempted to commit a crime or offense for which you were not arrested?"

“Some time ago, outside the statute of limitations, I drove 60 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone,” Roberts said, drawing laughter from the courtroom.

Robert Parker, assistant to the solicitor general in the Department of Justice, said under the government’s reading of the question, he would be required to disclose those sorts of offenses.

“Oh, come on,” Roberts said. “You're saying that on this form, you expect everyone to list every time in which they drove over the speed limit?” 

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Wednesday’s case centers on Bosnia native Divna Maslenjak, who became a naturalized citizen in 2007 but was indicted in 2013 after it was discovered she falsely answered no when asked on the naturalization application form if she had “ever knowingly given false or misleading information to a U.S. government official when applying or an immigration benefit.”

In trying to save her husband from being deported over his own misrepresentations, she gave testimony in 2009 that revealed she had lied about him serving in a Bosnia militia unit that had been implicated in war crimes when seeking refugee status in 1998.

The laws governing naturalization prohibit an immigrant from making false statements under oath and prohibit the naturalization of an immigrant who lacks good moral character, which includes anyone who has given false testimony for the purpose of obtaining an immigration benefit. 

Maslenjak claimed her statements were irrelevant and argued that the government must prove that they influenced its decision to grant her citizenship.

The government, however, claimed the plain language of the law contains no requirement that the false statements must be relevant or “material.”

But Roberts seemed to think that reading of the law is too broad because it gives the government the opportunity to denaturalize anyone they want.

“And that to me is troublesome, to give that extraordinary power, which essentially is unlimited power, at least in most cases, to the government,” he said. 

Parker argued that when someone deliberately lies under oath, it calls into question the veracity of their other answers, which he said is “very important in the naturalization process.” 

At the start of arguments the justices seemed reluctant to side with Maslenjak.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked her attorney, Christopher Landau, why lying about her husband’s military service isn’t relevant. 

“She lied about her husband's — what he was doing in Bosnia, right? She said he was trying to avoid military conscription when, in fact, he was in the service and in the unit that was committing atrocities,” she said. “Under what circumstances would that be immaterial?"

But the pendulum shifted when Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the court’s swing voter, made a comment in the second half of the hourlong arguments that appeared to clearly indicate a ruling in Maslenjak's favor.

He said Parker was “demeaning the priceless value of citizenship” in arguing that all denaturalization does is return someone to the status of a lawful permanent resident.

“That's not what our cases say,” he said. “That's not what citizenship means.”

It's a case immigration advocacy groups claimed in court briefs could gravely affect immigrants who make minor errors on immigration forms — something that is easy to do, given they often face language barriers or lack legal counsel.

The Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund and 15 other advocacy groups said the risk of criminal prosecution and denaturalization threatens to create two unequal classes of citizens: natural-born Americans who enjoy complete security in their citizenship and naturalized immigrants who would fear losing it.

“The fear that would hang over the families and communities of naturalized citizens would undermine the stability and security that immigrants seek in naturalizing and further depress already low naturalization rates among immigrants who are eligible for citizenship,” the group said.

The case was heard on the last day of scheduled oral arguments for the Supreme Court's term, which typically ends in late June or early July.