The U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the scope under which the federal government can strip naturalized Americans of their citizenship on Thursday, ruling that false statements made during the naturalization process had to be relevant to gaining citizenship in order to justify revoking it later.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for a unanimous Court in Maslenjuk v. United States, said that using small omissions or minor lies to denaturalize immigrants went beyond what Congress authorized. “The statute it passed, most naturally read, strips a person of citizenship not when she committed any illegal act during the naturalization process, but only when that act played some role in her naturalization,” she wrote.
The Obama and Trump administrations had tried to convince the justices otherwise. The case hinged on a provision of federal immigration law, Section 1425(a). If a jury finds a naturalized American guilty of an offense under 1425(a), he or she is automatically stripped of their citizenship. In 2013, federal prosecutors charged Diana Maslenjuk, the plaintiff in the case, with making false statements about her husband’s membership in Bosnian Serb militias in the 1990s.
Since the Supreme Court’s landmark Afroyim v. Rusk decision in 1967, American citizenship is generally irrevocable unless its bearer explicitly chooses to forsake it. No lawful method exists to involuntarily strip a native-born American of citizenship; naturalized citizens can lose it against their will only if they lied during the naturalization process. Maslenjuk qualified under that exception, according to federal prosecutors, when she misled a State Department official in 1998 during her application for refugee status.