Minor Falsehoods Can Not be Basis for Citizenship Revocation

Reuben Seguritan



Intentionally concealing the truth or knowingly lying to an immigration officer or to any official in the US or on any document submitted could lead a US official to conclude that there was misrepresentation. If the US official finds that the applicant has given a false statement, this could lead to the termination of any immigration benefit given or denial of any immigration benefit.


If the immigrant has a green card that was obtained through the false statement, then the green card may be revoked. If the immigrant has already become a US citizen when the false statement is discovered, the naturalization may be revoked because the immigrant was not entitled to naturalization in the first place. In both scenarios, the immigrant could be deported or allowed a voluntary departure because their status is no longer valid in the United States. However, in a recent case, the US Supreme Court restricted the power of the US government to revoke the naturalization of a US citizen on the ground of giving a false statement. The Supreme Court held that minor falsehoods committed cannot be the sole basis for revoking a person’s US citizenship.


The case involved Divna Maslenjak, an ethnic Serb who resided in Bosnia during the 1990’s. At that time, there was a civil war between the Muslims and the Serbs. In 1998, she and her family sought refugee status in the United States. Maslenjak was interviewed under oath and said that she and her family feared persecution from both sides of the conflict. The Muslims would attack them because of their ethnicity. On the other hand, the Serbs would chastise them because Maslenjak’s husband had evaded service in the Bosnian Serb Army. The US officials granted Maslenjak and her family refugee status.


Six year later, she applied for, and was granted US citizenship. In her application, she 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.


However, after becoming a US citizen, it was discovered that she had lied. It turned out that her husband was an officer in the Bosnian Serb Army and participated in the war for years. In fact, he had served a brigade that participated in the Srebrenica massacre- a slaughter of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians. This discovery led the US government to charge Maslenjak with violations of the immigration laws namely, knowingly “procures, contrary to law, (her) naturalization” and knowingly making a false statement under oath in a naturalization proceeding. When someone is convicted of unlawfully procuring her own naturalization, her citizenship is automatically revoked. The District Court instructed the jury that a conviction was proper so long as the Government “prove(d) that one of the defendant’s statements was false”— even if the statement was not “material” and ‘did not influence the decision to approve (her) naturalization”. The jury ruled in favor of the US government and convicted Maslenjak of violating the immigration laws. The District Court then revoked her US citizenship. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the conviction. Maslenjak appealed the case to the US Supreme Court.


The US Supreme Court held that the US government must establish that an illegal act by the defendant played some role in her acquisition of citizenship. When the illegal act is a false statement, that means the government must demonstrate that the defendant lied about facts that would have mattered to an immigration official, because they would have justified denying naturalization or would have predictably have led to other facts warranting that result.


The Supreme Court stated that the jury instruction was in error. The jury needed to find more than an unlawful false statement. The false statement must be itself a reason to deny naturalization, because it counted as “false testimony for the purpose of obtaining (immigration) benefits” and thus demonstrated bad moral character. Another standard would be for the jury to convict if there was (1) knowledge of that prior dishonesty would have led a reasonable official to make some further investigation (into the circumstances of her admission), (2) that inquiry would predictably have yielded a legal basis for rejecting her citizenship application, and (3) Maslenjak failed to show that (notwithstanding such an objective likelihood) she was in fact qualified to become a US citizen.


In this case, Maslenjak was not convicted by a properly instructed jury of “procuring, contrary to law, (her) naturalization.” Hence, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceeding.