Can a long-ago lie cost an immigrant her U.S. citizenship?
That is what the Supreme Court is considering in the case of an ethnic Serbian woman from Bosnia who lied during her refugee and later citizenship application process about why she was seeking to make the U.S. her permanent home.
Divna Maslenjak and her husband, Ratko Maslenjak obtained refugee status in 1999 and moved to Akron, Ohio a year later. They said they feared persecution back in Bosnia because the husband had refused to serve in the Bosnian Serb military.
But that was untrue. Ratko Maslenjak had in fact served as commander of a unit of the military that had been linked to war crimes that killed thousands of Bosnian Muslims and resulted in the exodus from the city of Srebrenica of about 30,000 women, children and senior citizens.
Both were convicted of immigration document fraud, deported last year and stripped of their U.S. citizenship.
Divna Maslenjak had tried to argue against the charge that she obtained U.S. citizenship illegally because it was based on a false statement on her application. She said the lie was immaterial, but lower courts upheld a criminal conviction against her.
The issue for the justices is how important her false statements were to her application to become an American citizen. Lower courts have disagreed with the standard. The trial judge in the lower courts said that any lie in the process of applying for naturalization was justification for stripping the immigrant of citizenship.
Last week, the Supreme Court seemed most concerned with the potential for the case to pave the way for the U.S. government to revoke citizenship for any number of reasons, no matter how significant.
In an amicus brief in support of Maslenjak, several immigrant rights groups maintain that the U.S. government’s proposed standard for revoking citizenship is too broad, and the questions on the application also are too broad, as well as trivial, making it easy for someone to state something that could be flagged as disqualifying.
“Our brief sought to educate the Court about the broader implications of the position advocated by the government – which as the Chief Justice made clear at argument, went far beyond the individual facts of the case,” Nancy Morawetz, who co-authored the brief, told Fox News.
The Trump administration contends that even minor lies about driving too fast or omitting childhood nicknames can lead to loss of citizenship.
Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. tried to illustrate the importance of distinguishing among falsehoods with an example about speeding.
"Some time ago, outside the statute of limitations, I drove 60 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone," Roberts said, to laughter. "I was not arrested. Now, you say that if I answer that question no, 20 years after I was naturalized as a citizen, you can knock on my door and say, guess what, you're not an American citizen after all."
Justice Department lawyer Robert Parker said that, yes, that would constitute a deliberate lie and that it should have consequences.
Parker stuck to his point.
“Congress has specifically attended to all false statements under oath in these types of proceedings,” he said. “It has specifically provided that it is a crime to lie under oath in the naturalization process, even about an immaterial matter, and it has provided that certain of those immaterial lies are categorical bars to naturalization.”
Roberts said the administration's reading of immigration law could lead to "prosecutorial abuse." Obama administration lawyers shared the same view as their successors.
Justice Anthony Kennedy told Parker that his argument "is demeaning the priceless value of citizenship."
Some groups who favor more strict immigration policies said that lying to obtain refugee status and citizenship should be disqualifying, particular when there was an attempt to cover up a possible war crime.
“When you lie about your husband’s involvement in the military and the potential that he was involved in war crimes, that’s important information,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, based in Washington D.C. “It isn’t irrelevant. She withheld information that might have disqualified her.”
“The Chief Justice made the argument about driving over the speed limit. It’s not the same. If she’s lied about the captain of her high school basketball team, that’s one thing, but lying about war crime is very pertinent information.”
But others watching the case closely say the stakes are too high and the implications go far beyond the specific aspects of Maslenjak's deception.
“We think it’s real overreach,” Nicholas Espiritu, a staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, one of the groups that joined the amicus brief, told Fox News. “When we wrote the amicus brief, our concerns were not with the details of this particular case, it was our reading of the statute, which included what is material and immaterial, [and application questions] about hair color, about weight, height.”
“Omitting a fact that they once went over the speed limit or had an embarrassing nickname could put up to six million people at risk of losing their citizenship for completely immaterial reasons.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.