WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Thursday held that federal law authorizes courts to strip immigrant citizens of their U.S. citizenship if they obtained it as a result of making false statements to the federal government.
Federal law found at 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a) makes it a crime to “knowingly procur[e], contrary to law, the naturalization of any person” to become a U.S. citizen. (“Naturalization” is the legal term for becoming a citizen.) Moreover, a second federal statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1451(e) adds that a foreigner who obtains U.S. citizenship through such a violation will lose that newly granted citizenship.
Divna Maslenjak is a Serb who, along with her husband and two children, sought refugee status in 1998 to flee Bosnia. As part of seeking protected status, she swore under oath that the family feared persecution because her husband evaded military service. They were admitted to the United States in 2000 as refugees.
In 2006, she applied for U.S. citizenship. One question on her application asked if she had ever given “false or misleading information” while applying for immigration benefits. Another asked if she had “lied … to gain entry or admission” in this country. She answered “no” to both and became an American citizen in 2007.
Those answers were false. Her husband had served in the Bosnian Serb Army. A third federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1015(a), criminalizes making a false sworn statement during naturalization. The U.S. government argued that her statement violating § 1015(a) also counts as a violation of § 1425(a), which meant she must lose her citizenship under § 1451(e).
A judge on the federal district court accepted that argument and stripped Maslenjak of her citizenship. The Sixth Circuit appeals court affirmed.
In an opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court in Maslenjak v. United States vacated (i.e., set aside) the lower court’s decision and remanded the case back down for more proceedings.
The federal government had argued that the citizenship-stripping provision is triggered whenever an immigrant commits a crime during the process of seeking citizenship.
All nine justices rejected that argument. “The most natural understanding is that the illegal act must have somehow contributed to the obtaining of citizenship,” Justice Kagan wrote. In other words, “§ 1425(a) demands a means-ends connection between a legal violation and naturalization.”
“We hold that the Government must establish that an illegal act by the defendant played some role in her acquisition of citizenship,” the Court declared. “When the illegal act is a false statement, that means demonstrating that the defendant lied about facts that would have mattered to an immigration official.”
The Court concluded that the contrary instructions given to the jury were faulty and that, instead, the jury should have been told that they needed to decide the factual question of whether Maslenjak’s lying about her husband’s military service was part of the cause of obtaining her own citizenship.
The majority vacated the lower court’s decision and remanded back to the trial court for a new jury proceeding where a correct explanation of the law would be provided to the jury.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a decision concurring in part, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Gorsuch wrote that the majority created a framework that was too elaborate, consisting of two complex tests with multiple parts. These new tests focus on causation, which was not the focus of the parties’ legal briefs or oral arguments.
He struck a note of judicial modesty, explaining:
Respectfully, it seems to me at least reasonably possible that the crucible of adversarial testing on which we 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.
Justice Gorsuch added that he believes the Supreme Court should send the case back down with a less-elaborate holding, and allow the lower courts to flesh out additional details as necessary over time. After a period of trial and error, the Supreme Court could then in future cases review aspects of those legal interpretations.
“This Court often speaks most wisely when it speaks last,” he concluded.
Justice Samuel Alito also wrote a separate opinion concurring in the judgment, writing that when it comes to false statements, the immigration statute is violated when a person says something that is “material” to the naturalization process of obtaining citizenship. But contrary to the Court’s majority, Justice Alito believes that the statement need not actually be part of the cause of obtaining citizenship.
The case is Maslenjak v. United States, No. 16-309.