Lies and loss of US citizenship: Supreme Court weighs in

Sébastien BLANC
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Bosnian army troops are seen walking up a hill near the city of Visoko, in 1995

Can a lie strip a naturalized American of citizenship?

That's what the US Supreme Court is weighing in the case of a Bosnian Serb couple who didn't come clean about the husband's wartime past.

Divna Maslenjak broke US law when she failed to tell US embassy staff that her husband was in the Bosnian Serb army during the darkest days of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war when she applied for US asylum for her family, which they received in 1999.

As a result, US government lawyers contended Wednesday, Maslenjak's acquisition of US citizenship eight years later is void. She and her family were declared illegal and deported from America to Serbia last October.

But the Supreme Court justices questioned whether omissions seen to be lies were in themselves enough to forfeit American citizenship.

The answer will have repercussions not just for the Maslenjaks, but potentially for millions of other immigrants, refugees and naturalized citizens.

- Citizenship is 'priceless' -

Every year, some 780,000 people become American by choice, through a process requiring them to be of "good moral character." They must mention any criminal record or past offenses, even minor ones.

If someone is later deemed to have lied, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Homeland Security Department, says their "citizenship may be taken away."

But the nine justices seemed concerned about the immense power the government has to revoke citizenship after an omission or untruth in the application process, whether voluntary or not.

"It seems to me that your argument is demeaning the priceless value of citizenship," Justice Anthony Kennedy told the government lawyer.

Another judge, Stephen Breyer, conjectured that a person simply carrying a penknife where it was illegal could end up seeing American citizenship yanked away.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor imagined a refugee who made no mention of a disliked childhood nickname. The court's presiding judge, John Roberts, wondered whether not flagging a traffic violation could trigger loss of citizenship.

If someone "not answering about the speeding ticket or the nickname is enough to subject that person to denaturalization, the government will have the opportunity to denaturalize anyone they want," Roberts observed.

The government lawyer, Robert Parker, replied that naturalization was "the highest privilege the United States can bestow upon on individual."

Laws passed by Congress, he said, "required that individuals who seek that high privilege must scrupulously comply with every rule governing the naturalization process."

- 'Material' lie? -

In the case of Divna Maslenjak, her husband was in the Bosnian Serb army when it was linked to the worst atrocity during the Bosnian war: the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica of 8,000 men and boys.

But when applying for asylum, she told the US embassy in Serbia that Ratko Maslenjak had stayed out of the army between 1992 and 1997 and feared reprisals for that.

When the untruth was discovered by US authorities, she did not deny it, but argued that it had no bearing on her refugee application, based on the fact that her family lived in a Muslim-majority area where they risked persecution from Bosnian Muslims.

Her lawyer, Christopher Landau, said it was up to the US government to prove that "the false statement was material" to the asylum decision, and "the whole issue about her husband's military service was really not the basis for it."

But the American government maintains it doesn't matter what the lie is -- any untruth at all is enough for naturalization to be revoked.

Jennifer Chacon, professor at the University of California's law faculty, noted in Scotusblog, a website following the Supreme Court's cases, that more than 6.6 million people became naturalized Americans over the past decade.

"Depending on the court's interpretation, all of them are potentially vulnerable to fines, imprisonment, and denaturalization on the basis of immaterial false statements," she wrote.