The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that 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.
A unanimous court said the government must establish that an immigrant’s illegal act during the naturalization process played some role in acquiring citizenship. When the underlying illegal act is a false statement, the justices said a jury must decide whether the false statements altered the naturalization process and influenced the immigration official's decision.
In delivering the opinion of the court, 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, Maslenjak v. U.S., centered on a Bosnian refugee, 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 government argued that 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.
The 6th Circuit agreed, affirming Maslenjak's conviction, but the Supreme Court vacated that ruling and sent the case back down to the lower court.