Can a naturalized American citizen have her citizenship revoked for making an immaterial false statement in her naturalization application?
Divna Maslenjak and her family immigrated to the United States as refugees in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, claiming they feared persecution because Maslenjak’s husband had avoided military conscription during the war. Maslenjak became a United States citizen in 2009, indicating on her application that she had never lied to immigration officials. United States officials, however, discovered that Maslenjak’s husband served as an officer in the Serbian Bratunac Brigade at the time the unit committed war crimes in the Bosnian War. Maslenjak was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a) with “knowingly procuring” her citizenship “contrary to law” due to her misrepresentations of her husband’s military service on her family’s refugee application. Maslenjak argues that materiality is a required element of § 1425(a), and therefore the government must prove that the false statement influenced the decision to approve the citizenship application. The United States argues that § 1425(a) only requires knowledge of the underlying offense, here making a false statement to a government official, and does not require proof of materiality. The Supreme Court’s decision will determine the circumstances under which naturalized citizens can be denaturalized and the government’s burden of proof in denaturalization proceedings.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Sixth Circuit erred by holding that a naturalized American citizen can be stripped of her citizenship in a criminal proceeding based on an immaterial false statement.
In the 1990s Divna Maslenjak and her family lived in the former Yugoslavia, in what is today Bosnia and Herzegovina. See United States v. Maslenjak, 821 F.3d 675, 680 (6th Cir. 2016). Maslenjak and her family, who are ethnic Serbs, were displaced from their home during the Bosnian War. See id. In 1998 Maslenjak met with a United States Immigration and Naturalization Service official in Belgrade to apply for refugee status in the United States. See id. Maslenjak represented on her family’s application that her husband had avoided conscription into the Bosnian Serb army during the war, and, as a result, the family feared persecution in their home country. See id. Maslenjak and her family immigrated to Ohio after their application was accepted, and Maslenjak became a lawful permanent resident in 2004. See id.
In 2006 Immigration and Customs Enforcement became aware of military records that revealed Maslenjak’s husband had served as an officer in a Serbian military unit that had participated in the genocide of thousands of Bosnian Muslims during the war. See id. Maslenjak’s husband was arrested, charged, and convicted of making a false statement on a government document. See id. He applied for asylum to avoid mandatory deportation, and at his asylum hearing Maslenjak admitted to misrepresenting her husband’s military service on their refugee application. See id. at 681.
Shortly after her husband was arrested, Maslenjak applied for citizenship and indicated that she had never “knowingly given false or misleading information” or “lied to any U.S. government official” in connection with the immigration process. See id. at 680–81. In 2009, one month before her husband was convicted, Maslenjak became a United States citizen. See id. at 681. In 2013, based on the allegedly false statements on her citizenship application regarding her earlier misrepresentations to immigration officials, Maslenjak was charged under 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a) with naturalization fraud, or “knowingly procuring” her citizenship “contrary to law.” See id.
At trial Maslenjak requested a jury instruction that, in order to find her guilty of naturalization fraud, the jury must find that her allegedly false statements on her citizenship application were material—that is they influenced the government’s decision to approve her application. See id. at 685. The district court denied Maslenjak’s request, and instructed the jury that materiality is not required under § 1425(a) because making any false statement, material or immaterial, in connection with the immigration process is “contrary to law.” See id. The jury found Maslenjak guilty of violating § 1425(a), and the district court sentenced her to probation and revoked her citizenship. See id. at 681. She appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which affirmed the district court, finding that the district court’s jury instruction did not constitute an abuse of discretion. See id. at 686.
Maslenjak appealed, and after Maslenjak and her husband were both deported to Serbia the Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the Sixth Circuit erred by holding that a naturalized American citizen can be stripped of her citizenship in a criminal proceeding based on an immaterial false statement. See Brief for Petitioner, Divna Maslenjak at 16.
IS MATERIALITY A REQUIRED ELEMENT UNDER 18 U.S.C. § 1425(a)?
18 U.S.C. § 1425(a) prohibits “knowingly procur[ing] or attempt[ing] to procure, contrary to law, the naturalization of any person, or documentary or other evidence of naturalization or citizenship.” Brief for Petitioner, Divna Maslenjak at 20. Maslenjak contends that the term “procure” was expressly included in the statute to create a causal link between (1) procuring naturalization; and (2) violation of the law. See id. Maslenjak reasons that in order to be found guilty of violating § 1425(a), one has to “procure” naturalization as a result of a violation of law. See id. According to Maslenjak, to interpret the statute otherwise leads to the unreasonable situation in which persons like Maslenjak could lawfully procure naturalization yet still be found guilty of violating § 1425(a) because of a violation of the law that did not influence the naturalization decision. See id. at 19. In other words, Maslenjak argues that at a minimum, any violation of the law must be “material” to procuring naturalization. See id. at 23.
Maslenjak furthers her argument by pointing to other federal criminal codes in which procurement is causally linked to the underlying violation, such as 18 U.S.C. § 2235 which requires a link between “procur[ing] a search warrant” and “maliciously and without probable cause.” See id. at 22. This is also true, Maslenjak contends, for 8 U.S.C. § 1451(a), which is § 1425(a)’s civil counterpart and requires denaturalization when naturalization is “procured by concealment of a material fact or by willful misrepresentation.” See id. Maslenjak relies on Kungys v. United States where the Court held that in reading § 1451(a), “the naturalized citizen must have procured citizenship as a result of the misrepresentation or concealment.” See id.
The United States rejects Maslenjak’s argument that the term “procure” requires evidence of a “material” violation of the law in connection with the naturalization process. See Brief for Respondent, United States at 9. The United States relies on United States v. Wells to reason that the Supreme Court previously rejected a similar argument. See id. at 43–44. The United States points out that in Wells, the Court relied on a statute’s literal reading to observe that a “material” requirement could not be read into a statute when the term was not included in the plain text. See id. For this reason, the United States argues that Maslenjak should be found guilty of § 1425(a) even though Maslenjak’s false statements were not made in the procurement of her naturalization. See id. at 18.
Similarly, the United States counters Maslenjak’s argument that because § 1451(a) requires a causal link between procuring naturalization and misrepresentation or concealment, § 1425(a) must also carry a similar link. See id. at 32. To the contrary, the United States argues, the fact that § 1451(a) expressly carries such a requirement and § 1425(a) does not indicates that Congress did not intend to create the same requirement in both statutes. See id. Additionally, the United States alleges that Maslenjak deliberately failed to mention § 1451(a)’s second clause which permits denaturalization when naturalization is “illegally procured.” See id. The United States maintains that this second clause is similar to § 1425(a) in that denaturalization does not require proof of materiality. See id.
DOES 18 U.S.C. § 1015(a) ALSO REQUIRE PROOF OF A MATERIAL FALSE STATEMENT?
Maslenjak argues that 18 U.S.C. § 1015(a)—one of the two underlying offenses linked to the § 1425(a) charge—also requires proof of a material false statement. See Brief for Petitioner at 30. Section 1015(a) states that “[w]hoever knowingly makes any false statement under oath in any case, proceeding, or matter relating to . . . naturalization . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.” See id. at 31. Maslenjak contends that § 1015(a) should be considered with the legal principle of de minimis non curat lex (“the law cares not for trifles”) in mind. See id. at 32. In other words, Maslenjak maintains that Congress did not intend to criminalize statements that are immaterial because such statements are trivial. See id.
Moreover, Maslenjak also points to Wells to conclude that although the Court held that “material” could not be read into the statute at issue in that case, the Court did so because the statute’s language imposed similar requirements to those provided by a materiality requirement. See id. at 33–34. Unlike the statute analyzed in Wells, Maslenjak asserts that § 1015(a) does not contain any protective language that would bring it closer to that provided by a materiality requirement. See id. at 36. Although § 1015(a) governs false statements made “knowingly,” Maslenjak argues that this language only protects against criminalizing statements made inadvertently, not immaterial or trivial statements. See id. Likewise, Maslenjak contends that the language in § 1015(a) governing false statements that are made “under oath” does not provide protections since most statements made when obtaining naturalization, despite their significance, are made under oath. See id.
The United States contends that the Court should not entertain the question of whether § 1015(a) requires proof of a material false statement. See Brief for Respondent at 38. The United States argues that this is because, in the petition for certiorari, Maslenjak only asked to resolve the narrow question concerning § 1425(a), and Maslenjak waived the argument that § 1015(a) includes a materiality requirement in the court of appeals. See id. at 38–40, 42. Nonetheless, the United States argues that the legal principle of de minimis non curat lex does not overcome § 1015(a)’s plain statutory reading. See id. at 46. According to the United States, if Congress intended to criminalize only material false statements, it would have done so explicitly. See id. at 43. In fact, the United States maintains, § 1015(a) does not expressly require that a false statement be material. See id. at 44.
To further this point, the United States points to other statutes which expressly require a materiality requirement and the legislative history of § 1015(a). See id. at 45. According to the United States, although § 1015(a) contained a materiality requirement at some point, this requirement was dropped from the language in 1909. See id. The United States asserts that the most likely inference is that Congress deliberately dropped the term “materiality” without intending to continue requiring material proof as an element of § 1015(a). See id. at 46. Finally, the United States asserts that even if a statement is considered immaterial, that does not necessarily make the statement trivial. See id. The United States argues that Maslenjak lying about her husband’s activities when obtaining asylum to conceal his involvement with genocide and then continuing to conceal that information under oath during the naturalization process does not lead to the conclusion that those statements are trivial. See id.
POTENTIAL FOR ABUSE AND COLLATERAL EFFECTS
In support of Maslenjak, the Immigrant Defense Project contends that the United States’ position—a single immaterial false statement is sufficient grounds for denaturalization—vests an excessive amount of prosecutorial discretion in the hands of federal prosecutors. See Brief of Amici Curiae Immigrant Defense Project et al., in Support of Petitioner at 8. This standard, the Immigrant Defense Project argues, interacts negatively with the sweeping questions asked on the naturalization application. See id. at 10. For example, the Immigrant Defense Project notes that the naturalization application requires applicants to disclose their membership, involvement, or association at any point during their lives with any organization anywhere in the world. See id. at 13. The Immigrant Defense Project maintains that a question this broad would almost inevitably result in an omission by the applicant; either through forgetfulness or through confusion over the extent of required disclosure. See id. at 14. The Immigrant Defense Project points out that many applicants may assume that membership in certain types of groups such as grade school clubs or sports teams are too trivial and decline to disclose them. See id. Under the United States’ position, the Immigrant Defense Project argues, any of these omissions, no matter how immaterial, subjects the applicant to denaturalization and mandatory deportation. See id. The Immigrant Defense Project asserts that because immaterial omissions are likely to be so prevalent, such a rule effectively grants prosecutors unlimited discretion to select targets for denaturalization. See id. at 19.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice (“AAAJ”), also supporting Maslenjak, argues that prosecutors’ expansive discretion would produce ripple effects throughout the naturalized citizen community. See Brief of Amici Curiae Asian Americans Advancing Justice et al., in Support of Petitioner at 9–10. For example, AAAJ argues, immigrants are less likely to report crime out of fear that interacting with police and other governmental bodies will draw unwanted attention to themselves that may eventually result in deportation. See id. at 10–11. AAAJ further argues that imposing harsh liability for immaterial misstatements made during the naturalization process would increase the number of immigrants that are eligible for naturalization but voluntarily choose not to naturalize. See id. at 12–13. When any trivial, immaterial misstatement could result in mandatory deportation, AAAJ contends, many immigrants will decide the potential risk is not worth the benefit. See id. Additionally, AAAJ argues that allowing deportation of a naturalized citizen for immaterial false statements undermines a primary benefit of naturalization—the sense of stability as compared to lawful permanent resident status, which allows deportation more freely. See id. at 17–18. This stability, AAAJ argues, would be significantly eroded by permitting the widespread stripping of naturalized Americans’ citizenship status for immaterial statements. See id. at 18.
The United States disagrees, maintaining that its position does not, as the Immigrant Defense Project and AAAJ claim, render materiality irrelevant. See Brief for Respondent, United States at 17. Materiality, the United States contends, remains relevant for determining the mens rea of the defendant, which is an element of the offense the government must already prove in cases involving false statements. See id. The United States notes that § 1425(a) requires that the defendant knowingly procure their naturalization “contrary to law.” See id. The United States suggests that a jury is free to consider the materiality or immateriality of the statement or omission when considering whether the defendant knowingly lied. See id. The United States argues that an omission resulting from an applicant’s confusion or forgetfulness would not support a finding of criminal knowledge, and therefore an applicant’s trivial omissions are unlikely to satisfy the mens rea element of § 1425(a). See id. at 17–18. Instead, the United States maintains, its position is only that the statute does not establish materiality as a separate element of the offense. See id. at 18.
- Kevin Penton, Justices Agree to Define What Statements Can Nix Citizenship, Law360 (Jan. 13, 2017).
- Lorraine Bailey, Justices to Hear War-Crimes Immigration Case, Courthouse News Service (Jan. 13, 2017).