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Can’t Revoke Citizenship Due to “Immaterial Falsehoods,” SCOTUS Rules

What does it take to remove a person’s citizenship? With all the discussion today about crimes that illegal immigrants have committed, border walls, travel bans (but not a ban!), and tougher ICE enforcement, it might be helpful to get some clarity on some of the finer points of immigration law.

The Details of the Case

Divna Maslenjak was granted refugee status and became a U.S. citizen in 2007. Immigration officials later found out that Maslenjak had lied about her husband’s military status. Instead of fleeing Bosnian conscription, he had served as an officer in a Bosnian military unit, a unit that was later accused of war crimes. Federal prosecutors charged Maslenjak with obtaining her citizenship illegally by lying on her immigration papers.

Maslenjak argued that the lie was immaterial, but the judge instructed the jury that any false statement on her application was sufficient for a guilty verdict. The jury found her guilty and Maslenjak was stripped of her American citizenship. Maslenjak appealed to the Sixth Circuit and then to the Supreme Court, arguing that putting false statements on immigration documents should only result in revocation of citizenship if the lie was material to the application process. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Maslenajk.

Justice Kagan provided an example that illustrates this point: Suppose that a man takes a painting illegally. One would assume that meant the man had stolen the painting from the art house, or used a fraudulent credit card to obtain the painting. Both of those would be material and would most likely result in the painting being returned to the art house from where it came. However, if the man ran a stop sign on his way to the art house to legally purchase the painting, then the crime, running a stop sign, would not be considered material to obtaining the painting.

citizenshipIs This Good or Bad For Immigrants?

Obviously, the purpose of this ruling is to make it more difficult for the federal government to take a person’s citizenship. It is legally impossible to remove a natural born citizen’s status unless the citizen voluntarily renounces citizenship. Similarly, there is currently only one way for a naturalized citizenship to lose citizenship after being granted citizenship status: if he or she was discovered to have lied during the application process. The Court’s ruling raises the bar slightly, as it requires at least a casual connection between the application process and the applicant’s false statement before citizenship can be removed.

The idea of a relationship between the offending behavior and the crime itself is not a new idea in the law. Most criminal laws require at least a causation between criminal intent and the physical act itself. In a murder case, it is not enough for the prosecution that the defendant intended for the victim to die and that the victim be dead. Instead, the defendant’s intentions must cause the defendant to take some action to harm the victim. For example, an employee could wish an employer to die and the employer could die of a heart attack the next morning. The employee would not be guilty because the wish for the employer to die never caused the employee to take an action against his boss. Without that causation, there is no crime.

The Court’s unanimous ruling extends this basic principle of criminal law to cover false statements made by naturalized citizens. This is not a high bar to clear though, and it’s likely that Maslenjak will still lose her second trial – claiming that your husband was fleeing a military that committed war crimes when in fact the husband was in the military that was allegedly committing war crimes is a very big lie to tell. This might be a small comfort to those afraid of losing their citizenship, but in an era where xenophobia might be at an all-time high, a small comfort is better than nothing.


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