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Supreme Court Limits Government’s Ability to Revoke Naturalized Citizenship

BosniaImmigrants to the United States can become citizens through the process of naturalization, and unlike natural-born citizens, it is possible for them to lose citizenship. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) states that a conviction for unlawfully obtaining citizenship can result in the loss of naturalization, but it does not define the scope of the government’s power under this provision. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the government cannot revoke a person’s naturalization unless the fraudulent statement or action that led to the conviction was materially related to the approval of the naturalization petition. Maslenjak v. United States, 582 US ___ (2017).

Under federal criminal law, it is an offense to obtain naturalization for oneself or anyone else by any means that are “contrary to law.” 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a). The statute’s rather vague phrasing has been interpreted to include false statements in connection with a naturalization application. What remained unclear was whether the false statements have to be material to the eventual decision to grant naturalization.

The INA identified several specific grounds for revocation of naturalization, including a conviction under § 1425. In that case, the INA states that the court that enters the conviction should “revoke, set aside, and declare void” the person’s naturalization order. 8 U.S.C. § 1451(e). This section is also silent on the question of whether the underlying unlawful act must be directly material to the naturalization decision.

The petitioner in Maslenjak is an ethnic Serb who lived in Bosnia during that country’s civil war in the 1990s. She immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee in 2000. She had obtained refugee status partly by claiming that her husband had fled Bosnia to avoid serving in the Bosnian Serb Army and that this exposed her and their two children to the risk of retribution by Bosnian Serb forces.

Years later, the petitioner filed a naturalization application. Questions 23 and 24 on the application form asked if she had ever provided false information while applying for an immigration benefit, and whether she had ever made a false statement to a U.S. official in order to gain admission to the U.S. She responded to both questions with “no.” She became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2007.

At about the same time, immigration officials were becoming suspicious of the story she told when applying for refugee status, and they discovered that her husband’s story was largely made up. The petitioner was charged with and convicted of violating § 1425(a). The district court instructed the jury that the false statement did not have to be material to the decision to grant naturalization to constitute an offense. This was the question presented to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court unanimously vacated the lower court rulings, holding that a false statement must be material to the naturalization decision under § 1425. The government argued that any false statement in the course of applying for naturalization should lead to revocation. Justice Kagan, writing for the court, rejected this argument, noting that it would grant tremendous power to the government, allowing “a prosecutor [to] scour her paperwork and bring a § 1425(a) charge…even many years after [the petitioner] became a citizen.” Maslenjak, slip op. at 9.

Samuel C. Berger is an immigration lawyer who represents immigrants, prospective immigrants, and their family members and employers in Northern New Jersey and New York City. Contact us today online, at (201) 587-1500, or at (212) 380-8117 to schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our experienced and skilled team.

More Blog Posts:

2017 Brings Reported Increase in Naturalization Applications in New Jersey and Around the Country, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, August 10, 2017

Immigration Panel Rules on Claim of U.S. Citizenship Acquired through Naturalized Parent, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, May 25, 2017

U.S. Supreme Court Reviews Government’s Authority to Revoke Naturalization, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, May 11, 2017

Photo credit: Mikhail Evstafiev [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.