June 22, 2017

Supreme Court Decides Maslenjak v. United States, No. 16-309.

On June 22, 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court decided Maslenjak v. United States, holding that to revoke naturalized citizenship based on a crime committed in the naturalization process, the government must show that the crime had a causal influence on the defendant’s acquisition of citizenship. Where the crime in question is lying to immigration officials, the Court held, such causal influence exists if a truthful answer would predictably have led a reasonable official to discover the applicant was not qualified for citizenship.

Divna Maslenjak lived in Bosnia during that country’s civil war in the 1990s. Her husband was an officer in the Bosnian Serb army, in a brigade that participated in the Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians. Maslenjak later obtained refugee status in the United States. In doing so, she lied to immigration officials, falsely claiming that her husband had fled to Serbia for five years to avoid military service. Maslenjak was later naturalized as a U.S. citizen after falsely swearing that she had never “lied to a government official to gain entry or admission into the United States.” She was later charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a), which prohibits “knowingly procuring, contrary to law, the naturalization of any person.” If a person is convicted of unlawfully procuring her own naturalization, her citizenship is automatically revoked. 8 U.S.C. § 1451(e). The district court instructed the jury that under § 1425(a), Maslenjak could be convicted even if her false statement “was not material and did not influence the decision to approve her naturalization.” The jury returned a conviction, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded, holding that section 1425(a) “strips a person of citizenship not when she committed any illegal act during the naturalization process, but only when that act played some role in her naturalization.” The Court elaborated that, when the illegal act is false statements to immigration officials, the required “causal influence” is present if either (1) “the facts the defendant misrepresented are themselves disqualifying” for citizenship, or (2) an honest answer would have led reasonable officials to conduct “further investigation” that “would predictably have disclosed some legal disqualification.” The Court noted, however, that a defendant can rebut this showing by demonstrating that she actually was legally qualified for citizenship.

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Gorsuch filed an opinion, in which Justice Thomas joined, concurring in part and in the judgment. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.

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