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SCOTUS Says You Can't Lose Your Citizenship for Lying About Your Weight

The Court unanimously rejects the government's position that any misstatement by an applicant can justify denaturalization years later.

SCOTUSSCOTUSCan a naturalized American lose his citizenship because he misrepresented his weight on his application form, neglected to mention that he once belonged to a Barry Manilow fan club, or failed to acknowledge the various occasions on which he exceeded the speed limit without being caught? The Justice Department, under Barack Obama as well as Donald Trump, said yes. Yesterday the Supreme Court unanimously disagreed.

The issue in Maslenjak v. United States was the meaning of 18 USC 1425, which makes it a felony to "procure" citizenship "contrary to law." In addition to a prison term of up to 25 years, a conviction under that statute triggers automatic loss of citizenship. That is what happened to Divna Maslenjak, an ethnic Serb from Bosnia who became a citizen in 2007. Malenjak was convicted of violating 18 USC 1425 because she lied about her husband's military service while seeking refugee status in 1998 and did not acknowledge the lie when she applied for citizenship. Instead she swore under oath that she had never provided false information while seeking an immigration benefit or entry to the United States. That denial violated another law making it a crime for a naturalization applicant to knowingly make a false statement under oath.

Whether Maslenjak's lie helped her obtain citizenship is a matter of dispute. But during her trial, the prosecution argued that it did not matter, and the judge agreed, telling the jurors they could convict Maslenjak of illegally procuring citizenship "even if you find that a false statement did not influence the decision to approve the defendant's naturalization." Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit approved that interpretation of the law, opening the door to fishing expeditions that could strip people of their citizenship based on trivial misstatements made years ago.

According to the Supreme Court, the interpretation approved by the 6th Circuit relies on an unnatural reading of the words Congress used. "The most natural understanding is that the illegal act must have somehow contributed to the obtaining of citizenship," writes Justice Elena Kagan in the majority opinion. "To get citizenship unlawfully, we understand, is to get it through an unlawful means—and that is just to say that an illegality played some role in its acquisition." She elucidates the point with an example:

Suppose that an applicant for citizenship fills out the necessary paperwork in a government office with a knife tucked away in her handbag (but never mentioned or used). She has violated the law—specifically, a statute criminalizing the possession of a weapon in a federal building....And she has surely done so "in the course of " procuring citizenship. But would you say, using English as you ordinarily would, that she has "procure[d]" her citizenship "contrary to law" (or, as you would really speak, "illegally")? Once again, no. That is because the violation of law and the acquisition of citizenship are in that example merely coincidental: The one has no causal relation to the other.

Kagan notes that the government's counterintuitive reading of the law leads to some strange results. People could lose their citizenship, for example, by lying about facts that would not have prevented their naturalization to begin with. "Lies told out of 'embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy' (rather than 'for the purpose of obtaining [immigration] benefits') are not generally disqualifying under the statutory requirement of 'good moral character,'" she writes. But those same lies, according to the government, are enough to revoke citizenship after it has been granted. The upshot, Kagan says, is that the government could "take away on one day what it was required to give the day before."

Kagan also calls attention, as several justices did during oral argument, to the sweeping impact of the government's position. "Suppose, for reasons of embarrassment or what-have-you, a person concealed her membership in an online support group or failed to disclose a prior speeding violation," she writes. "Under the Government's view, a prosecutor could scour her paperwork and bring a §1425(a) charge on that meager basis, even many years after she became a citizen. That would give prosecutors nearly limitless leverage—and afford newly naturalized Americans precious little security."

You might think such casual disregard for people's hard-won citizenship is related in some way to the tough immigration policies advocated by Donald Trump. But as I mentioned at the outset (and pointed out last month), the Trump administration only continued to defend a position taken by the Obama administration. On the question of whether prosecutors should have vast authority to turn naturalized Americans' lives upside down on the slightest pretext, there is no daylight between Trump and Obama.

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  • Libertarian||

    Nice illustration, troll.

  • Rich||

    The Court unanimously rejects the government's position that any misstatement by an applicant can justify denaturalization years later.

    Ah, but what was the intent of congress?

  • EscherEnigma||

    That only matters when the justices want it to matter.

  • LibertarianJRT||

    Congressional intent may indeed have been to allow for this Statsi-esque second class citizenry, but its hard justify that from a plan reading of the text. Considering the sacrosanct nature of citizenship its hard to interpret that Congress would wantto strip citizenship for minor violations such as running a red light accidently or the interpretation that a tool is a weapon.

  • Devastator||

    Doesn't matter when the law is unconstitutional and the punishment is irrational considering the severity of the crime, the SCOTUS has the say in that realm.

  • Ryan Frank||

    As a general point, I agree with the ruling, but as a specific case this one sucks.

    Getting more specific about the " lied about her husband's military service " is that she lied about the fact that he served in one of the units that committed several massacres of civilians and other war crimes. I'd consider that somewhat more relevant than your weight, as I understand the her husband came into the country with her. Basically the prosecution fucked up with which argument they chose.

  • WakaWaka||

    Yeah, that's buried in the second paragraph. Instead the article begins with asinine and non relevant examples, like lying about your weight. I'm also apt to agree with this argument, to an extent. In this case, it would seem that they purposely lied because otherwise they would not have been allowed residency. When you have to disingenuous to make your argument that open borders are totes cool, I'm less inclined to agree.

  • MWG||

    "Instead the article begins with asinine and non relevant examples, like lying about your weight."

    Except in this specific case as it was presented to the supreme court, Reason's examples are NOT asinine and non relevant examples. Go back and read the third paragraph. The prosecutors weren't arguing that the woman lied about her husband being a war criminal, but that ANY lie no matter how "asinine" and "non relevant" could result in naturalization being reversed.

  • WakaWaka||

    Well then I stand corrected. I guess it was the government that made a poor argument. It seems that their argument should have been specific to the case at hand.

  • Arcxjo||

    It wasn't a POOR argument the government made, it was an OVERREACHING one. They wanted the Court to sanction the ability to strip citizenship for any misstep, and weren't content to rely on the precedent that you may have to be a war criminal.

  • Principal Spittle||

    It wasn't poor or overreaching, it is a fundamental position that all questions asked while gaining citizenship are relevant and lying in response is by definition "procured contrary to law" the "good" reasons to lie imagined by the justices are too easily expanded. Kegan in particular is a dim bulb to counter this simple argument with the incomplete knife in the purse example. It needs to be expanded to the person with the knife being asked if they have a knife, choosing to lie (for a good reason) and stlll being granted citizenship when the innocent, well intended, irrelevant lie is discovered.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    The Supreme Court seemed to find them relevant examples.

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    And is it really so arduous to get to the second paragraph? Most details in stories are "buried" in the second paragraph. The lede isn't known for being hugely substantive.

  • ||

    Supreme Court's job is to clarify the principle. Did she lie about her husband's service ? Then it is the USCICS's job to find that out and deny her citizenship not to undo her citizenship after she was naturalised.

  • Agammamon||

    Except, in the case under review, the State didn't pursue *that* particular avenue, only stating that *merely lying about his service* was sufficient to get her stripped of citizenship - under the idea that *any* false information is enough to allow that.

    They didn't actually pursue proving that lying about the *specific facts* of her husband's military service would have, if they had been known, been enough to deny her citizenship in the first place.

    In short, they didn't try to prove that the lie about her husband's service would have been material, and only pushed the 'any lie is enough'. The SC hasn't ruled on the former and only stated the latter is not true.

  • KevinP||


    On the question of whether prosecutors should have vast authority to turn naturalized Americans' lives upside down on the slightest pretext, there is no daylight between Trump and Obama.

    Cocktail party checklist - check!

  • KevinP||

    As a naturalized citizen, I welcome the general ruling but am somewhat conflicted about its application to this particular case.

    US immigration law prohibits the admission of those who committed war crimes. While this woman did not commit war crimes, her husband did. It seems to me that the question about war crimes was relevant and material to admission as a refugee and later citizenship.

  • commentguy||

    Presumably this is the question that will now go before the jury. SCOTUS didn't rule that she could keep her citizenship, just that the judge shouldn't have instructed the jury that even "white lies" were covered by the statute.

  • EscherEnigma||

    IIRC, the SCOTUS ruled on the general premise, and then kicked it back to the lower courts to be re-heard under the new standard. So she isn't off the hook yet.

  • buybuydandavis||

    This is why you read the comments and not the articles around here.

    It would be nice to have a proper legal analysis instead of sputtering Open Borders outrage propaganda.

    Reading between the sputters, I'm guessing the Supremes decided that an improper standard was used, although it's unclear whether that was the 6th or the judge's instructions to the jury. Maybe I'll look up a real article about it.

  • Agammamon||

    Which, if the original prosecutors were smart and not lazy, would have been litigated at the start. Instead they skipped proving that the lie was material and just jumped straight to 'any lie is enough to get you stripped' - which the original judge allowed.

    The SC is not ruling on the former, only the latter.

  • DJF||

    """"The Congress shall have Power To…… establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization"""

    I don't see where the Supreme Court has jurisdiction. As long as Congress makes it uniform they can write what naturalization rules they want including keeping out the Irish

    And of course the Courts have long had the power to impose very heavy penalties on people who lie to the courts

  • Zeb||

    But the question is once someone is naturalized, under what circumstances can citizenship be revoked.

  • Arcxjo||

    I don't know all the reasons, but fraudulently pretending not to be a war criminal should be in the top 10.

  • Agammamon||

    She wasn't fraudulently pretending to not be one and the question of whether or not her husband's being one would have been material to giving or denying citizenship WAS NOT LITIGATED.

    So this has just been sent back down for re-trial with the understanding that little white lies are not sufficient justification to strip citizenship - now the State will have to prove that her lie was *material* - which they did not do originally.

  • KerryW||

    I'm no lawyer, but they do have a say in ruling on whether a law is being enforced properly (according to how it is written). Of course, vague laws (with vague language) can cause problems.

  • R. K. Phillips||

    And, often, explicit laws with explicit language are also manipulated as the government requires.

  • BYODB||

    So, lying about war crimes isn't enough to necessarily remove one's citizenship and you can't have temporary travel bans to countries where Muslim extremism is alive and well. This is obviously reducto absurdum, but it's also pretty amusing.

  • amishanarchist||

    You misread the article.

  • Azathoth!!||

    If Trump wasn't to blame for this last month--according to you, how did he suddenly acquire blame--" there is no daylight between Trump and Obama"--again, according to you, this month?

    Did you forget to include the tweet where he says 'I absolutely and fully accept the Obama administration's stance on this and support and uphold his stance and his justice department(whose bureaucracy can't seem to stop fucking with me)'?

  • EscherEnigma||

    I'm not sure about your last month/this month question, but it was argued in lower courts by the Obama admin, but when it was argued in front of the SCOTUS in April, it was the Trump admin.

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    So how does the process work when a ruling for a previous admin is adjudicated by the current admin? Are the gov lawyers already set in and around the time when the SCOTUS hearing date is determined? I assume they working the case with one set of strategies/arguments when Obama was in office. Were they specifically told to stay the course by the Trump admin or did they just work away with previous assumptions? Could Trump had effected the course of events at once the case was on the SCOTUS docket?

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    *they were working

    **events once

  • EscherEnigma||

    Most federal employees, whether you're talking Armed Forces, DoJ, FBI, DOE, or any of the various national labs, don't change with the administration. So the lawyers that argued the case were probably the same ones that argued it under Obama.

    That said, there was three months from when Trump was sworn in and when the case was argued in front of the SCOTUS. He could have ordered the DoJ (through Sessoins, or the acting Attorny General before him) to drop the case, swap sides, change legal arguments, ask for more time from the SCOTUS, etc. and so-on.

    Staying the course was a decision that the Trump admin made, and there was nothing obligating them to do so.

  • Azathoth!!||

    If you can't be bothered to read the piece, please refrain from replying to comments that are clearly from people who did.

    But, just to be a helper, the case being argued before the Supreme Court began it's journey there BEFORE Trump could have anything to do with it--and was, in fact, scheduled to be heard while Obama was president.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Trump became president on January 20th.
    Sessions was confirmed on February 9th.
    MASLENJAK v. UNITED STATES was argued April 26, 2017.

    So while the Trump administration is not responsible for the lower court arguments, they are responsible for the SCOTUS argument.

  • Agammamon||

    Did you miss the tweet where he says he is going to change any of that?

    Or are we going to say that Obama didn't really support Bush's policies because even though he continued and expanded on them he never explicitly said he was?

  • Fuck You - Cut Spending||

    I was expecting the alt-text to read "115 lbs."

  • buybuydandavis||

    Malenjak was convicted of violating 18 USC 1425 because she lied about her husband's military service while seeking refugee status in 1998 and did not acknowledge the lie when she applied for citizenship. Instead she swore under oath that she had never provided false information while seeking an immigration benefit or entry to the United States. That denial violated another law making it a crime for a naturalization applicant to knowingly make a false statement under oath.

    She lied in response to material questions in a material way. No citizenship for you. This is an easy one. Military service to a foreign power is clearly relevant to a citizenship application.

    It should be a rational basis test on the question. If there is a rational basis for judging your false response as material to the outcome? The onus should be on the *applicant* to truthfully answer such questions regardless of any embarrassment.

    It can include weight. If you're morbidly obese, but claim a svelte, healthy weight, your lie is materially matter relevant to the costs you impose on the country. Could include online support groups as well.

    It can include speeding. Drive fast enough, and your speeding will likely be classified as a *crime*, which reasonably matters.

    It's an *application*. You want something. The US is asking questions to determine if you get it. Willful deceit or disregard for the truth on reasonably material questions should be disqualifying.

  • amishanarchist||

    No, that is what was just struck down.

  • ||

    The court has not said anything about the case you are discussing. The question is whether a person's citizenship can be retrospectively revoked years later if government find out that you had lied.

    Personally I think USCICS should get one shot at verifying the information and making its decision. Once that decision is made, the government should not be allowed to change it retrospectively years later because government suddenly found out that you lied.

  • Rogers1234||

    The only way those would apply is if the government had a policy of denying citizenship to overweight people, speeders and members of online support groups. If no such policies existed, the government cannot strip a person of citizenship because he/she lied about them when applying for it.

  • Dave Burton||

    Kagan should have recused herself.

  • amishanarchist||

    Why, exactly?

  • ||

    > opening the door to fishing expeditions that could strip people of their citizenship based on trivial misstatements made years ago.

    That door needs to be closed even if it means some liars get the citizenship.

  • Sejanus||

    What this ruling says to all intending immigrants is, "Go ahead and lie about anything that might impede receiving your visa. In the slim chance it is ever discovered, you can just lawyer up and play the 'not relevant' card so graciously provided by SCOTUS." You can be sure every immigration lawyer in the country has taken note. The law now has no teeth, and we have legitimized deceit in the immigration process.

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