Immigration Law

Lying to immigration officials doesn't necessarily justify revoking citizenship, Supreme Court rules

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the government can’t revoke citizenship for lying to immigration authorities unless the actual facts would have led to a denial of citizenship.

The court ruled on behalf of Divna Maslenjak, a Serbian immigrant who lied to immigration officials about her husband’s service in the Bosnian Serb Army. Maslenjak said her husband had fled to avoid service. In reality, he served as an officer in a brigade that participated in the massacre of about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.

Maslenjak was convicted under a federal law that requires automatic revocation of citizenship for knowingly procuring, contrary to law, one’s own naturalized citizenship.

To obtain a conviction under the law, the government must show the illegal act played some role in acquiring citizenship, Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her opinion (PDF) for the court.

“When the illegal act is a false statement,” she wrote, “that means demonstrating that the defendant lied about 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.”

The government’s position would have required revoked citizenship for any lie told in the naturalization process, Kagan said. That would include failure to disclose a speeding violation (in response to a question about committing crimes that didn’t result in arrest). It would also include failure to disclose participation in an online support group (in response to a question about ever associating with any groups or associations).

Kagan overturned Maslenjak’s conviction because jurors did not receive proper instructions in her trial. The jurors had been told that a lie doesn’t need to be material to lead to a conviction.

Kagan’s opinion was joined in full by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. wrote concurring opinions, and Justice Clarence Thomas joined Gorsuch’s opinion.

Gorsuch said the majority should have stopped after finding jurors were not properly instructed on a causation requirement. “In an effort to ‘operational[ize]’ the statute’s causation requirement,” he wrote, “the court says a great deal more, offering, for example, two newly announced tests, the second with two more subparts, and a new affirmative defense—all while indicating that some of these new tests and defenses may apply only in some but not all cases.”

Those issues are better left to the lower courts to sort out, Gorsuch said.

“Respectfully, it seems to me at least reasonably possible that the crucible of adversarial testing on which we usually depend, along with the experience of our thoughtful colleagues on the district and circuit benches, could yield insights (or reveal pitfalls) we cannot muster guided only by our own lights,” he wrote.

The case is Maslenjak v. United States.

Related article: “Justices appear skeptical of government stance in case about revocation of citizenship”

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