Main content

Analysis: Maslenjak v. United States

Polly J. Proce |

When may the government strip a naturalized citizen of U.S. citizenship? The Immigration and Nationality Act makes it a crime to knowingly “procure” naturalization “contrary to law.” Another statute makes it unlawful to knowingly make a false statement under oath in a naturalization proceeding. If convicted, citizenship is automatically revoked, with no statute of limitation on when the government may pursue revocation of naturalization. 

The dispute in Maslenjak v. United States centered around the standard to apply.

Divna Maslenjak is an ethnic Serb who fled Bosnia with her family during its civil war in the 1990s. In her application for refugee status, she told immigration officials that she feared persecution from Serbs because her husband had evaded military service. But this was untrue—her husband had served as an officer, including in a brigade that participated in the Srebrenica massacre of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians.

Maslenjak was granted refugee status in 1998. 

When she applied for naturalization six years later, she answered “no” to whether she had ever given “false or misleading information” to a government official while applying for an immigration benefit. She also answered “no” when asked whether she had ever “lied to a government official to gain entry or admission into the United States.”  Maslenjak became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2007. However, the government began revocation proceedings against her in 2013, and Maslenjak was convicted by a jury. Based on that finding, her citizenship was revoked. 

Over the defendant’s objection, the District Court instructed the jury that the government need not prove that Maslenjak’s false statements were material to, or influenced, the decision to approve her citizenship application. In seeking to affirm that standard, the government argued that even a trivial lie during the naturalization process could be grounds for stripping American citizenship many years after the fact. 

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court vacated the conviction, remanding the case to the District Court. Resolving a circuit split on the issue, Justice Elena Kagan wrote:

“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.”

The government’s position would have given prosecutors unfettered power to scrutinize the extremely broad questions in the naturalization application for any misstatement as a basis to strip that person’s citizenship. Instead the court said the lie must be related to the decision to grant citizenship in the first place. Otherwise, Justice Kagan wrote, the government’s position would have opened the door “to a world of disquieting consequences” for the more than six million persons who became naturalized U.S. citizens in the last decade alone.

The Court’s opinion interpreted the plain language of the statute: “The most natural understanding is that the illegal act must have somehow contributed to the obtaining of citizenship,” the Court said. Failing to disclose minor violations of the speed limit or lying about one’s weight, for example, could risk one’s citizenship. 

Going forward, the government must prove that the misrepresentation was “sufficiently relevant” to a requirement for naturalization that it would have prompted further investigation. Then the government needs to establish that the investigation “would predictably have disclosed” some legal disqualification. Thus, on remand the government will have to show that Maslenjak’s dishonesty would have affected its decision to grant her citizenship in 2007.

Both Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil Gorsuch concurred separately to note some disagreement with the majority’s reasoning. Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, agreed that the misstatement had to be material, but took issue with the court’s establishment of a two-part test to implement that rule. But defending the specificity of the test, Justice Kagan wrote:  “At least one federal court has called the Supreme Court’s lack of guidance in this area “maddening.”  

Polly J. Price, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law