By Attorneys Anda Kwong and Nancy Miller
Since Independence Day on July 4, 1776, our nation has seen remarkable progress in the arts, science and technology, and society. Much of this progress has been possible thanks to immigrants—including those who have naturalized to become U.S. citizens. The United States has set standards for the naturalization process. Generally, one must be a permanent resident for at least five years, be over the age of 18, be a person of good moral character; have continuous residency for at least half of the previous five years; meet physical presence requirements; be able to read, write, and speak basic English; have a basic understanding of U.S. history and government; and demonstrate an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution. For those who meet the requirements and are approved, the Oath Ceremony is one of the proudest moments of their lives.
Rarely discussed, however, is just how many people have been stripped of citizenship. The truth is that denaturalization is not common, but may occur in limited circumstances. On June 22, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision that made it more difficult to strip someone of citizenship through the criminal proceedings.
In Maslenjak v. United States, the Supreme Court held that the Government must establish that a defendant’s illegal act played some role in the acquisition of citizenship in order to convict under the federal statute which makes it a crime to “knowingly procure, contrary to law, the naturalization of any person.” In this case, the criminal defendant told an American immigration official that her family feared persecution in Bosnia from both parties of the civil war. More specifically, she stated that Muslims would mistreat the family because of their ethnicity, and the Serbs would abuse them because her spouse had evaded serving in the Bosnian Serb Army by hiding for five years. In 2000, after being granted refugee status, the family immigrated to the United States. In 2006, the defendant applied for citizenship, swearing under Oath that she had never given false or misleading information while applying for an immigration benefit. The U.S. government subsequently confronted her husband with records showing that he had in fact served as an officer in the Bosnian Serb Army during a brigade that participated in the Srebrenica massacre. When the defendant attempted to prevent her husband’s deportation, she admitted that she knew the truth all along. Because she gave a false statement, the Government attempted to convict and denaturalize her.
Although both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals found in favor of the Government, the Supreme Court clarified that in order to be convicted under this particular statute, the Government must establish that the illegal act played a role in the acquisition of citizenship. As an example, the Court analogized that if a painting was obtained illegally, one might imagine the wrong things done to obtain it illegally, such stealing it or paying for it with a fraudulent check. The Court contrasted that “if no illegal act contributed at all to getting the painting, then the painting would not have been gotten illegally.” As it pertains to naturalization, an example would be how one requirement to be eligible for citizenship is to be physically present in the United States for at least half of five years. If the lie was about the amount of time spent inside and outside the country, and the citizenship was granted based on that lie, then it would be appropriate to convict someone under this statute. To a further extent, a jury would have to decide if a false statement sufficiently influenced how a reasonable government official would grant citizenship.
The impact of this decision is that a misrepresentation must be material to the grant of citizenship. It means that those who misspoke on a naturalization application or at the interview may still be able to keep their citizenship. It also means that those who misspoke during the process of obtaining asylum or permanent residency or other benefits may still be able to become citizens. In many instances, our immigration laws favor giving a second chance to one who has made a mistake. This decision strengthens those values. Anyone who has been afraid to seek naturalization, or who, having obtained it, lives in fear of losing it, because of a past misrepresentation should consult with a knowledgeable and experienced immigration lawyer to see if this decision frees the way for them to obtain or keep their U.S. citizenship.