The Supreme Court has complicated the Trump administration’s efforts to strip naturalized Americans of citizenship due to false statements made during the naturalization process.
A six-justice majority of the high court ruled Thursday that a naturalized immigrant can lose his or her citizenship for lying to the government only if the lie would have led officials to deny citizenship or obscured facts likely to lead to such a denial.
"The Government must establish that an illegal act by the defendant played some role in her acquisition of citizenship," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for her fellow Democratic appointees, along with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy. "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."
Echoing concerns raised by Roberts and Kennedy at arguments in the case in April, Kagan said allowing the government to revoke citizenship due to any lie, no matter how minor or irrelevant, would lead to absurd outcomes.
"Suppose, for reasons of embarrassment or what-have-you, a person concealed her membership in an online support group or failed to disclose a prior speeding violation," Kagan wrote. Allowing a revocation on that "meager" ground "would give prosecutors nearly limitless leverage—and afford newly naturalized Americans precious little security," she added.
At the oral arguments, Roberts scoffed at the Trump administration’s position. When a Justice Department lawyer said someone could lose citizenship by failing to disclose that he or she went over the speed limit, the chief justice shot back: "Oh, come on."
The case was brought to the high court by Divna Maslenjak, an Ohio resident who was stripped of citizenship on the ground that she lied by obscuring her husband’s service in the Bosnian Serb Army. She and her husband were deported last year.
The case prompted Justice Neil Gorsuch to author his second opinion since joining the court in April: a concurrence that amounted to a dissent and argued the court’s majority went too far in its ruling. Joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, Gorsuch said the lower courts erred in saying there didn’t need to be any evidence that the lie might have affected a person’s naturalization, but the threshold should be addressed in the first instance by the lower courts.
"I believe it is work enough for the day to recognize that the statute requires some proof of causation, that the jury instructions here did not, and to allow the parties and the courts of appeals to take it from there are they usually do. This Court often speaks most wisely when it speaks last," Gorsuch wrote.
Justice Samuel Alito would have applied a lower standard, saying that if the statement was "material"—meaning it had "a natural tendency to influence the outcome—that’s enough to strip citizenship. Alito also said the law "does not require that an illegal false statement have a demonstrable effect on the naturalization decision."
The Trump administration has appeared eager to use the law to take citizenship from convicted terrorists and perhaps others. In March, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit aimed at stripping the U.S. citizenship of Iyman Faris, a Pakistani-born truck driver convicted in 2003 of plotting to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge.
Faris is currently serving a 20-year sentence at a high security prison in Illinois He’s set for release in 2020.