June 22 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the federal government cannot strip immigrants of their citizenship if they lied about irrelevant aspects during the naturalization application process.
The high court was unanimous in its 9-0 decision, which said naturalized immigrants are not at risk of losing their citizenship if it's found later that they were unlawful in answering questions that had no bearing on the decision to grant citizenship.
In Maslenjak v. United States, the Supreme Court decided that to take such action, the U.S. government must prove that untruthful answers given by an immigrant directly influenced the decision to grant citizenship.
The case involved Divna Maslenjak, an ethnic Serbian woman who fled Bosnia for the United States during the Balkan wars in 1998. In 2007, she became a naturalized citizen. However, the government later indicted her and attempted to strip her citizenship when it was discovered that she'd been untruthful on a question during the application process.
That question, though, had to do with her husband's military service in Bosnia -- an issue her attorneys argued was wholly irrelevant to the required citizenship criteria. Federal prosecutors, however, argued that it violated one of the legal mandates for naturalized citizenship -- "good moral character."
Multiple lower federal courts had ruled against Maslenjak, but the Supreme Court's decision Thursday gave her a permanent lifeline.
"The issue a jury must decide in a case like this one is whether a false statement sufficiently altered those processes as to have influenced an award of citizenship," the high court wrote in its opinion.
U.S. Code §14259(a) states that a naturalized immigrant can be sent to prison and potentially lose citizenship if he or she "knowingly procures or attempts to procure" the naturalization process.
The high court said, however, that the circumstances of Maslenjak's case do not qualify for that legal provision.
"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. Under the Government's view, a prosecutor could scour her paperwork and bring a §1425(a) charge on that meager basis, even many years after she became a citizen," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court. "That would give prosecutors nearly limitless leverage and afford newly naturalized Americans precious little security."
The Supreme Court particularly took issue with the law's potential for unintended consequences regarding immigrants' status and said in some cases, the results would not be in accordance with what Congress intended.
"Small wonder that Congress, in enacting §1425(a), did not go so far as the Government claims. The statute it passed, most naturally read, strips a person of citizenship not when she committed any illegal act during the naturalization process, but only when that act played some role in her naturalization," the court emphasized.
"Government officials are obligated to apply that body of law faithfully -- granting naturalization when the applicable criteria are satisfied, and denying it when they are not."
In making its conclusion, the Supreme Court identified a two-part burden that the government must prove to legally rescind citizenship.
"The Government has to prove that the misrepresented fact was sufficiently relevant to one or another naturalization criterion," the court wrote -- and that such a misrepresented fact would reasonably have led to subsequent further investigation that would have "borne disqualifying fruit."
"Section 1425(a) is not a tool for denaturalizing people who, the available evidence indicates, were actually qualified for the citizenship they obtained," the decision continued.
The court's ruling sends the case back down to a lower federal court, which must resolve the dispute in accordance with the Supreme Court's decision.