The truth test for immigrants

Supreme Court | A refugee who lied asks the Supreme Court for another chance
by Mary Reichard
Posted 5/01/17, 02:45 pm

The Supreme Court’s final oral argument of this term dealt with the Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” The Bible is clear about lying, but the government’s rules—as this case shows—are less so.

Divna Maslenjak lived in Bosnia during its bloody civil war in the 1990s. In 1998, Maslenjak applied for asylum in the United States, saying her husband had dodged service in the Bosnian Serb militia and feared retribution. But he had actually served as an officer in a unit implicated in genocide against Bosnian Muslims, although no evidence showed him personally involved in the atrocities.

Maslenjak became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2007, along with her family, and moved to Ohio, where two of her sisters already lived as refugees.

Her lie eventually surfaced, and a court stripped her of her citizenship. Last year, the government deported her and her husband to Serbia.

Now Maslenjak wants the U.S. Supreme Court to help restore her American citizenship through a new trial and another chance.

Maslenjak’s lawyer, Christopher Landau, argued Maslenjak’s lie was not significant enough to change the outcome of her asylum application.

“I think Congress recognizes that not all lies are created equal,” Landau said. “They come in different shapes and sizes.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to disagree.

“She lied about her husband’s—what he was doing in Bosnia, right? She said he was trying to avoid military conscription when, in fact, he was in the service and in the unit that was committing atrocities. Under what circumstances would that be immaterial?” Ginsburg asked.

Landau responded it might be material, but Maslenjak wanted a jury to consider that question: “We would like the opportunity for our day in court on that issue.”

The lawyer for the federal government, Robert Parker, argued a lie is a lie.

But Chief Justice John Roberts said that expectation could be unrealistic: “On the naturalization form, there is a question. … ‘Have you ever’—and they've got ‘ever’ in bold point—‘committed, assisted in committing, or attempted to commit a crime or offense for which you were not arrested?’ Some time ago, outside the statute of limitations, I drove 60 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone.”

Roberts went on to question whether the government could revoke naturalized citizenship for answering “no” to that question in those circumstances.

“Naturalization is the highest privilege the United States can bestow upon on individual,” Parker said. “And Congress has required that individuals who seek that high privilege must scrupulously comply with every rule governing the naturalization process.”

Proceedings against Maslenjak began during the Obama administration, and the federal government hasn’t changed its position under President Donald Trump. Although the justices weren’t particularly sympathetic to Maslenjak herself, they did seem more concerned with possible government abuse of the process. Any ruling in the case will greatly affect already naturalized citizens and set a precedent for other kinds of “lies” in areas of governance.

Listen to “Legal Docket” on the Mary 1, 2017, edition of The World and Everything in It.

Mary Reichard

Mary is co-host, legal affairs correspondent, and dialogue editor for WORLD Radio. She is also co-host of the Legal Docket podcast. Mary is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and St. Louis University School of Law. She resides with her husband near Springfield, Mo.

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  • Laura W
    Posted: Tue, 05/02/2017 09:00 pm

    Hm. I wonder if there should be a middle ground available--somewhere between sweeping it under the rug and deportation. In this case, the lie may mean they no longer have a credible case for asylum at all. But as far as setting precedent, if someone was truly escaping a dangerous situation, they might feel compelled to tell some lies if they thought it would help. Now that still isn't justified, but there might be a better way of handling it than to simply deport them after it's discovered.