On June 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court held in Maslenjak v. United States that naturalized U.S. citizens cannot have their citizenship revoked for making false statements to immigration officials if the misstatement did not factor into the decision to grant naturalization. The ruling complicates the requirements for revocation of citizenship and will undoubtedly prompt both naturalized citizens and applicants to reexamine their applications to ensure proper procedures.
In Maslenjak, the petitioner was a Serbian woman who resided in Bosnia during the civil war. In 1998, the petitioner and her family applied for refugee status in the United States. As part of her application, the petitioner was required to explain how she and her family feared persecution in Bosnia. The petitioner explained that she feared that the Serbs would abuse them for her husband’s evasion of service in the Bosnian Serb Army. Subsequently, the petitioner was granted refugee status and eventually applied for U.S. citizenship. In the naturalization application, the petitioner swore that she had never given false information to a government official while applying for an immigration benefit or lied to an official to gain entry into the United States. Based on the application, the petitioner was granted citizenship. Soon thereafter, officials learned that the petitioner had lied about her husband’s evasion of service and was in fact serving as an officer in the Bosnian Serb Army.
In a jury trial, the petitioner was convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a) for knowingly “procur[ing], contrary to law, [her] naturalization.” The conviction was based on the standard that the false statement need not be material to, or influence, the decision to approve her citizenship application. The Sixth Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court, however, disagreed, finding that the text of § 1425 made clear that, to secure a conviction, the government must establish that the defendant’s illegal act played a role in her acquisition of citizenship. The Court then set forth two scenarios where a § 1425 conviction would be proper. In the first situation, the defendant’s misrepresentation of facts are themselves legally disqualifying for citizenship. In such a case, the jury can make “quick work” of that inquiry, and find the defendant guilty. However, in the second situation, if the defendant lied to obscure or mislead a government investigation into the defendant, the government must prove two separate factors: (1) that the misrepresented fact was sufficiently relevant to a naturalization criterion that it would have prompted reasonable officials, “seeking only evidence concerning citizenship qualifications,” to undertake further investigation, and if such was the case; (2) such an investigation would have unearthed a disqualifying fact. Once the government makes its two-part showing, the defendant may overcome it by establishing that she was qualified for citizenship, even though she misrepresented facts that suggested the opposite. Based on this analysis, the court remanded the petitioner’s case to the trial court for determination under the new two-part inquiry whether the petitioner’s conviction should be upheld.
The Supreme Court’s newly-created two-part test draws a distinction between “immaterial” false statements and serious misstatements that warrant revocation of citizenship. This distinction may create confusion regarding the scope of permissible misstatements on naturalization applications. Accordingly, current naturalized citizens as well as applicants undergoing the naturalization process should reexamine their applications in order to fully determine how the new standard affects their application, and solicit further advice where appropriate.