By Emmanuel Samonte Tipon
Chief Justice Roberts, during oral argument in a denaturalization case, noted that Question Number 22 of the Application for Naturalization asks: “Have you ever committed, assisted in committing, or attempted to commit, a crime or offense for which you were not arrested?” He then recalled that “Some time ago, outside the statute of limitations, I drove 60 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone. . . I was not arrested. . If I answer that question no, 20 years after I was naturalized as a citizen, you can knock on my door and say, guess what, you’re not an American citizen after all.”
The government lawyer replied: “First, that is how the government would interpret that, that it would require you to disclose those sorts of offenses.”
Chief Justice Roberts riposted: “Oh, come on. You’re saying that on this form, you expect everyone to list every time in which they drove over the speed limit . . .”
The government lawyer said: “If we can prove that you deliberately lied in answering that question, then yes. I think - - “
Justice Sotomayor asked if the “failure to disclose the use of a childhood nickname that is embarrassing, that has no relationship to anything whatsoever, could you prosecute that person?”
The government lawyer said that “there are a number of answers that could be given in the naturalization process that could be false and might seem to be, in isolation, immaterial, completely immaterial, for example. I mean, you could, you know, lie about your weight, let’s say. .. The point, though, is, Congress specifically attended to all false statements under oath in these types of proceedings. It has specifically provided that it is a crime to lie under oath in the naturalization process, even about an immaterial matter, and it has provided that certain of those immaterial lies are categorical bars to naturalization.”
Justice Kagan: “I am a little bit horrified to know that every time I lie about my weight, it has those kinds of consequences.” Maslenjak v. United States, No. 16-309 SC 04/26/2017. Transcript of oral argument at 27-36. https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2016/16-309_b97c.pdf
Anyone who listened to the oral argument on April 26, 2017 could have predicted the decision of the Supreme Court – not every lie will result in denaturalization.
In a rare display of unanimity, on June 22, 2017, the Supreme Court said: “A federal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a), makes it a crime to “knowingly procure [ ] contrary to law, the naturalization of any person.” And when someone is convicted under § 1425(a) of unlawfully procuring her own naturalization, her citizenship is automatically revoked. See 8 U.S.C. § 1451(e). In this case we consider what the Government must prove to obtain such a conviction. We hold that the 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 demonstrating that the defendant lied about facts that would have mattered to an immigration official, because they would have justified denying naturalization or would predictably have led to other facts warranting that result.” Maslenjak v. United States, No. 16-309 SC 06/22/2017. https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/16-309_h31i.pdf
The petitioner Divna Maslenjak is an ethnic Serb who resided in Bosnia. During an interview in connection with her application for refugee status in the United States, she said that her husband evaded service in the Bosnian Serb army by absconding to Serbia. American officials granted them refugee status. Later she applied for naturalization. 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. Maslenjak was naturalized as a U.S. citizen. It was later discovered that Maslenjak knew all along that her husband served in the Bosnian Serb Army.
The government charged Maslenjak with knowingly procuring contrary to law her naturalization in violation of 18 U.S.C. §1425(a) because in the course of procuring her naturalization she broke another law, 18 U.S.C. § 1015(a), which prohibits knowingly making a false statement under oath in a naturalization proceeding.
At Maslenjak’s criminal trial, the District Court instructed the jury that to secure a conviction under § 1425(a), the Government need not prove that Maslenjak’s false statements were material to, or influenced, the decision to approve her citizenship application. She was convicted. The Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed her conviction, holding that if Maslenjak made false statements violating § 1015(a) and procured naturalization, then she also violated §1425(a).
The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case, saying “To decide whether a defendant acquired citizenship by means of a lie, a jury must evaluate how knowledge of the real facts would have affected a reasonable government official properly applying naturalization law.”
“If the facts the defendant misrepresented are themselves disqualifying, the jury can make quick work of that inquiry. In such a case, there is an obvious causal link between the defendant’s lie and the procurement of citizenship. . . In short, when the defendant misrepresents facts that the law deems incompatible with citizenship, her lie must have played a role in her naturalization.” But “even if the true facts lying behind a false statement would not ‘in and of themselves justify denial of citizenship,’ they could have ‘led to the discovery of other facts which would’ do so.” Thus “a person whose lies throw investigators off a trail leading to disqualifying facts gets her citizenship by means of those lies – no less than if she had denied the damning facts at the very end of the trail.”
The Supreme Court noted that § 1425(a) clearly imports some kind of “causal or means-end” relation, but left that relation’s precise character unspecified. The Supreme Court pointed out that “Qualification for citizenship is a complete defense to a prosecution brought under § 1425(a).” Maslenjak was not convicted by a properly instructed jury of procuring, contrary to law, her naturalization, since the jury was told that it could convict based on any false statement in the naturalization process, that is, any violation of § 1015(a), no matter how inconsequential to the ultimate decision, although as the Supreme Court had shown the jury needed to find more than an unlawful false statement.
Comment: For more information on this issue, see the annotation: What constitutes concealment of material facts or willful misrepresentation warranting revocation of naturalization under § 340 of Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (8 U.S.C.A. § 1451). 77 ALR Fed 379.