Supreme Court Sets Higher Bar For Revoking U.S. Citizenship

Jun 22, 2017
Originally published on June 22, 2017 6:32 pm
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The U.S. Supreme Court today made it harder for the government to revoke the citizenship of a naturalized American citizen. The unanimous decision came in the case of a Bosnian woman who came to the U.S. as a war refugee. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The decision came in the case of Divna Maslenjak, an ethnic Serb who lived in Bosnia during the 1990s when a civil war divided the new country. In 1998, she applied for refugee status in the United States, claiming that she, her husband and her two children, as ethnic Serbs, were in fear of persecution in Bosnia because of their ethnicity. She also said they were targets because her husband had avoided serving in the Bosnian army by hiding in Serbia. The family emigrated to the U.S., and in 2007 Maslenjak became a U.S. citizen. Two years later, however, officials learned that her husband had served for five years in a Bosnian militia brigade implicated in the notorious massacre of some 8,000 Muslims in the town of Srebrenica.

At the husband's deportation hearing, his wife testified in his behalf. She admitted she'd provided false information about her husband when seeking refugee status for the family, and that she'd answered no when asked on her citizenship application form if she'd ever given false information to gain entry to the U.S. Those admissions then became the basis for charges against her, charges that she'd lied about her lies on her citizenship application form.

She was convicted, stripped of her citizenship and deported. She appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that she was convicted because of an erroneous instruction. Specifically, at the government's request, the judge instructed the jury that it should convict her if it found any of her statements was false, even if that statement did not affect the decision to grant her citizenship. Today the Supreme Court reversed Maslenjak's conviction.

Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Elena Kagan said that under the language of the federal law the government must prove that an illegal act somehow contributed to the obtaining of citizenship and that the government didn't do that in Maslenjak's case. The rule otherwise, said Kagan, would mean that a lie told in the naturalization process, even out of embarrassment, fear or a desire for privacy, would always provide a basis for rescinding citizenship. She said such a broad interpretation would mean a person who fails to reveal a speeding ticket could have her citizenship revoked.

Lucas Guttentag, who served as senior counselor for the secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration, views the decision as correct.

LUCAS GUTTENTAG: The court strongly rejected a sweeping claim made by the government that would have made citizens vulnerable for insignificant, immaterial, inconsequential misstatements that have nothing to do with actual eligibility for citizenship.

TOTENBERG: But as Guttentag observed, the defendant in this case is not off the hook. She could still be retried if the government can show that her lies did, indeed, lead to her being granted citizenship. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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