WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court handed a setback to the Trump administration on Thursday by making it harder for the government to strip immigrants of U.S. citizenship in a case involving an ethnic Serb woman who lied about her husband’s military service after Yugoslavia’s collapse.
The justices ruled 9-0 that a naturalized American citizen cannot be stripped of citizenship if a lie or omission on immigration forms was irrelevant to the government’s original decision to grant entry into the United States.
They rejected the Trump administration’s stance that the government should be able to revoke citizenship of people for even minor misstatements in the citizenship application process.
The court sided with Divna Maslenjak, who had her citizenship revoked and was deported to Serbia after being convicted of breaking immigration law by falsely stating her husband had not served in the Bosnian Serb army in the 1990s. She entered the United States as a refugee.
President Donald Trump has sought to restrict immigration and deport people who have entered the United States illegally.
“This decision will ensure that lawful permanent residents who take the next step by becoming U.S. citizens do not have to live in fear that their rights may be revoked at any time,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.
The ruling set a higher bar for the government to convict naturalized citizens for making false statements in the application process.
“We hold that the government must establish that an illegal act by the defendant played some role in her acquisition of citizenship,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.
“We have never read a statute to strip citizenship from someone who met the legal criteria for acquiring it. We will not start now,” Kagan added.
The legal question was whether Maslenjak’s false statements had a material effect on the U.S. decision to grant her refugee status. The Trump administration argued it only mattered that she made a false statement, not whether it had any impact on its decision to grant refugee status.
The justices threw out a lower court ruling in favor of the government and sent the matter back to that court for further consideration.
The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, when it again takes up the case, could still find that Maslenjak’s conviction and loss of citizenship were valid because her statements were in fact material to her bid to gain entry.
Maslenjak entered the United States with her husband and two children in 2000 and settled in Ohio, having been granted refugee status over a claimed fear of ethnic persecution in Bosnia at the hands of Muslims. She became an American citizen in 2007. At issue in the case was her concealment of her husband Ratko’s service in a Bosnian Serb Army brigade that participated in the notorious 1995 massacre of about 8,000 Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
After taking over the case this year, Trump’s administration took the same stance toward Maslenjak that the administration of former President Barack Obama had taken.
At a 2009 hearing to help her husband avoid deportation after he was convicted of making a false statement by concealing his military service, she admitted that when she had applied to be a refugee she had not revealed that from 1992 to 1997 the family lived in Bosnia and her husband served in the military. She was later convicted of lying on her citizenship application.
During the April 26 oral argument in the case, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Trump administration’s position could make it too easy for the government to strip people of citizenship for lying about minor infractions.
Roberts seemed particularly concerned that the government was asserting it could revoke citizenship through criminal prosecution for trivial lies or omissions.
Maslenjak and her husband were deported to Serbia last October.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham