The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that naturalized American citizens cannot be stripped of citizenship if a lie or omission in the application process was irrelevant to the government’s decision to approve the naturalization application in the first place. The ruling in Maslenjak vs. U.S. will ultimately make it more difficult for the government to revoke citizenship, rejecting both the current and prior administrations’ position that all lies–even minor ones–can lead to loss of citizenship.
The case involved an ethnic Serb who lied about her husband’s military service during her refugee processing, obscuring his service in the Bosnian Serb Army. When later applying for naturalization, she falsely claimed that she had never given false or misleading information when seeking an immigration benefit. Divna Maslenjak arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in 2000 and became a citizen in 2007. In 2013, however, she admitted that her husband had indeed served in the Bosnian Serb Army, ultimately resulting in her conviction for making false statements on her application for naturalization, and eventually revocation of her U.S. citizenship for having been obtained “contrary to law.”
Maslenjak appealed, contending that, when the underlying offense in a citizenship revocation case is a false statement, the government must prove that the truth would have negatively influenced the original decision. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that the government need not establish that Maslenjak’s misrepresentations were material to the original naturalization decision.
On June 22, the Supreme Court overturned the Sixth Circuit’s decision, focusing on the causal relationship between the violation and the acquisition of citizenship. The Court was particularly troubled that the government’s position results in a “mismatch between the requirements for naturalization on the one hand and those for denaturalization on the other” and the uncertainty this mismatch imposes on naturalized U.S. citizens.
The case will now return to the lower courts. Maslenjak’s U.S. citizenship could remain revoked, but only if the lower court determines that her false statements were in fact material to the approval of her naturalization application.
This ruling significantly raises the bar for revocation of citizenship. Requiring the government to show that it would have denied a citizenship application had it known the truth will make it more difficult for citizenship to be revoked. Even if the naturalized citizen’s lie had a real potential to affect the naturalization decision, the government will have to demonstrate not only that the lie could have impacted the decision, but that it actually would have made a difference. By disallowing revocation based on factors that might not have resulted in denial in the first instance, the Court provides naturalized U.S. citizens much greater security in their new status.