The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday to limit the government’s ability to strip U.S. citizenship from legal immigrants for lying on their naturalization applications.
The Court said that naturalized immigrants cannot lose their citizenship for making false statements that are irrelevant to an immigration official’s decision to grant it. Instead, a jury must decide if such false statements would have influenced the decision.
“When the illegal act is a false statement, that means demonstrating that the defendant lied about the facts that would have mattered to an immigration official because they would have justified denying naturalization or would predictably have led to other facts warranting that result,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the ruling opinion. Supreme Court Ruling Opens Door For Judge To Declare Mistrial In Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Litigation
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Kagan said that without this limitation, prosecutors would have “nearly limitless leverage” to dig up information to threaten the citizenship of newly naturalized American citizens.
“A lie told in the naturalization process — even out of embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy — would always provide a basis for rescinding citizenship,” Kagan said of the danger of not having this limitation. “The Government could thus take away on one day what it was required to give the day before.”
She explained that immigrants seeking citizenship are barraged with all sorts 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,” Kagan continued.
“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 brought before the Court, Maslenjak v. U.S., involved a Bosnian refugee, Divna Maslenjak, who fled to the U.S. in 1998 to escape her country’s civil war.
She became a naturalized citizen in 2007 but was indicted in 2013 after it was discovered she falsely answered “no” when asked if she had “ever knowingly given false or misleading information to a U.S. government official when applying or an immigration benefit” in her naturalization application.
But in 2009, Maslenjak testified that her husband had actually served in a Bosnian militia unit that had been implicated in war crimes.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals found that Maslenjak’s lie under oath during her naturalization process displayed a lack of good moral character, and convicted her for “knowingly procuring” her citizenship under false pretenses due to her misrepresentations of her husband’s military service.
But the Supreme Court’s ruling found that Maslenjak’s lie under oath wasn’t enough to support her conviction, so the Court vacated the 6th Circuit’s ruling and sent it back down to the lower court.
By Andrew Kerr