Can a naturalized citizen have her citizenship revoked for making an immaterial false statement in her naturalization application? On June 22, 2017 the Supreme Court in Maslenjak v. United States decided that to rescind one’s citizenship due to false statement made during the immigration process, the statement has to be material. In other words, “the false statement so altered the naturalization process as to have influenced an award of citizenship.”
Divna Maslenjak sought refugee status in 1998 after a civil war broke out in Bosnia. In her immigration interview, Maslenjak testified that she feared of persecution from the Muslims due to her ethnicity and from the Serbs because her husband evaded service in the Bosnian Serb Army. Years later when Maslenjak applied for citizenship, she swore that she never made a false statement to gain immigration benefit or gain entry into the U.S. After she acquired citizenship in 2007, it was discovered that she did indeed provide false statement to a government official about her husband who had served as an officer in the Bosnian Serb Army during the war years.
In the lawsuit, the parties agreed that it is a crime to commit illegal act in connection with naturalization under 18 U.S.C. 1425(a). §1425(a) states that to secure a conviction, the government must establish that the defendant’s illegal act played a role in her acquisition of citizenship. The dispute lies in the nature of that connection. Maslenjak argues that the relationship must be causal. It is only a crime if the act contributed to her acquiring citizenship. The government argues a chronological relationship in which a crime is found when the act occurred during the naturalization process.
In district court, the jury was instructed to determine conviction based on whether Maslenjak made a false statement even if the statement did not affect the decision to approve her citizenship. The jury found her guilty and Maslenjak was stripped of her citizenship. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the jury instructions and affirmed the district court’s decision.
The Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling vacated the Sixth Circuit’s judgment. The Court determined that statute §1425(a) strips a person of his/her citizenship when that illegal act contributed to his/her naturalization, not when s/he committed a crime during the naturalization process. In such cases, as the Court concluded, the jury should be instructed to decide on whether the false statement influenced the award of citizenship in a single, significant way. The jury must assess how a reasonable government official is influenced in his application of the naturalization law by the set of facts.
The Supreme Court by its decision made it harder to strip naturalized Americans of their citizenship. The decision in Maslenjak does not give a blank check to applicants to lie on their naturalization applications, but does provide some relief to those who undergo denaturalization by placing the burden on the Government to prove materiality.