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Government Can't Take Citizenship From Refugee for Lying to Immigration

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

A Serbian refugee who lied to immigration officials cannot be stripped of her American citizenship because her lie was immaterial, the U.S. Supreme Court said.

"We have never read a statute to strip citizenship from someone who met the legal criteria for acquiring it," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in Maslenjak v. United States. "We will not start now."

The case involved one naturalized citizen, but it marks another setback to the Trump administration's policies against immigrants. It also marks a turning point in the Court, as the newest member of the panel said the decision goes too far.

Far From Bosnia

Fleeing civil unrest after the Bosnia War, Divna Maslenjak came to the Unites States as a refugee with her husband and two children in 2000. She became a naturalized citizen in 2007, but government officials found out that she had lied about her husband's participation in the war.

She was tried and convicted of lying under oath to a government official, and an appeals court affirmed her conviction. The law made it a crime for a person to procure naturalization "contrary to law," and the penalty was revocation of citizenship.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, faulting the jury instructions. Jurors were told that an immaterial lie in the immigration process was criminal under the law.

"We hold that the government must establish that an illegal act by the defendant played some role in her acquisition of citizenship," Kagan said in the 9-0 opinion.

Too Far

Justice Neil Gorsuch, in a concurring opinion, said the majority went further than necessary in its decision.

"In an effort to 'operationalize' the statute's causation requirement, the court says a great deal more," he said, "offering, for example, two newly announced tests, the second with two more subparts, and a new affirmative defense -- all while indicating that some of these new tests and defenses may apply only in some but not all cases."

At a time when Trump has tried to restrict immigration and deport more people, the court decision sets a higher bar for the government.

"This decision will ensure that lawful permanent residents who take the next step by becoming U.S. citizens do not have to live in fear that their rights may be revoked at any time," said Arturo Vegas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund.

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