Supreme Court rules that a conviction for obtaining naturalization illegally requires a material misrepresentation.

 

In the context of federal criminal proceedings, the U.S. Supreme Court recently weighed in on whether a person can lose citizenship based on false statements that were not material or did not influence the decision by USCIS to grant naturalization (U.S. citizenship).

Divna Maslenjak and her husband immigrated to the United States as refugees from the former Yugoslavia.  In their applications for refugee status, Maslenjak and her husband claimed that they faced persecution from Muslims in Bosnia because of their Serbian ethnicity and faced persecution from the Serbians because her husband evaded service in the Bosnian Serb army during the civil war.  Maslenjak immigrated to the United States in 2000 and became a naturalized citizen in 2007.

However, government investigators discovered that Maslenjak’s story was mostly a lie.  Her husband had, in fact, served as an officer in the Bosnian army and his brigade participated in the notorious Srebrenica massacre where 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians were murdered.  Maslenjak’s husband was convicted for making false statements and Maslenjak was criminally charged with procuring her naturalization contrary to law in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1425(a).  The government said that she knowingly made a false statement in her naturalization proceedings – namely, she said she never lied to receive an immigration benefit – a statement which appears to have clearly been untrue.

Maslenjak’s case essentially centers on the jury instructions provided during the course of her criminal trial.  The trial court said the Government only has to prove that she made a false statement during the course of her naturalization proceedings and do not have to show that the statement was material or influenced the decision to approve her naturalization application.  Maslenjak was convicted and both she and her husband were deported to Serbia.

But the legal challenges continued all the way up to the Supreme Court.  Maslenjak argued that the jury instructions were an improper interpretation of the law.  She said that only false statements which in some way impact the decision to grant naturalization could result in conviction.  The government countered that any false statement made during the course of naturalization proceedings was sufficient for a criminal conviction – even if that statement had no bearing whatsoever on the decision to grant naturalization.

The Supreme Court agreed with Maslenjak’s interpretation and sent the case back down to the lower court.  The Court held that the government’s broad interpretation would make it too easy for the government to strip individuals of their citizenship. For example, the naturalization application asks if the applicant has EVER committed an offense for which he or she was not arrested.  If a person fails to disclose the fact that she exceeded the speed limit while driving, that could be a false statement and result in a conviction under the government’s interpretation.

The Court held 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, the government has the burden to show 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’s application for naturalization would likely have never been granted if she answered questions regarding her history truthfully.  She may very well end up being convicted once again. But under the Supreme Court’s reasoning, she is entitled to proper jury instructions about the law’s requirement of materiality.

You can read the Court’s decision in Maslenjak v. United States here:  https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/16-309_h31i.pdf

 

Material misrepresentations in immigration proceedings, not just criminal proceedings, can have a detrimental effect on your green card or ability to obtain a green card (lawful permanent residency status). Material misrepresentation can pose a permanent bar to immigration benefits. Contact us today for a case evaluation if you are facing potential misrepresentation charges: 213.627.8998.

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