The United States Supreme Court is to begin hearing oral arguments on April 26 in a case which could set a precedent in the revocation of American citizenship of naturalized citizens and is of paramount significance to thousands of Indian residents.
In Maslenjak v. United States, the Supreme Court will determine if an “immaterial false statement or omission in an immigration document or status proceeding” can lead to criminal prosecution and revocation of citizenship.
With more rigorous immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump, the case has caused consternation among many immigrant activists. As many as 70 organizations representing immigrants have filed an amicus brief about the case.
The Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), which is among the organizations which filed the amicus brief, said in a statement, “The brief explained that many individuals may make minor errors in filling out immigration forms or providing information because of language barriers and lack of counsel and subjecting those individuals to criminal prosecution and loss of citizenship exacts a harsh and unfair penalty.”
“The naturalization process can be long and complicated and requires applicants to make hundreds of factual representations, in response to often ambiguous questions, about events spanning their entire lives.”
“If any trivial factual misstatement could violate the statutes at issue in this case, untold numbers of naturalized citizens would be at risk of losing their citizenship and liberty years after they have become full American citizens. Based on this case, someone accused of knowingly providing the wrong street number in an address (203 instead of 205), for example, could be subject to criminal proceedings and having their citizenship revoked – a worrying threat given the current administration’s wide-reaching enforcement and deportation activities,” the AAAJ statement said.
Maslenjak v. United States involves Divna Maslenjak, an ethnic Serbian woman and a native of Bosnia, who came to the United States in 2000 as a refugee in order to flee the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and was found to have made a misstatement during immigration proceedings.
The Supreme Court’s verdict in this case is considered important because it could provide guidance over whether naturalized American citizens can be stripped of their citizenship in a criminal proceeding based on an “immaterial false statement”.
What could have been a case dealing with procedural matters in less turbulent times, has gained importance because of the Trump administration’s enhanced focus on immigration enforcement. The New York Times has reported that officials of two organizations which take a hard line stance on immigration – the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform — have joined the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, putting them in positions where they can carry out their agenda.
Moreover, with Trump’s appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the US Supreme Court, the court now tilts to conservatism. Gorsuch, like the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he succeeded, is a proponent of originalism – a judge given to interpret the words of the US Constitution as they were understood at the time they were written in 1787.
In one of the most famous cases where the United States Supreme Court ordered the revocation of citizenship involved an Indian, in 1923, the court ruled that Bhagat Singh Thind, a founder member of the Ghadar party, was racially ineligible for US citizenship. The court based this decision on the American Nationality Act of 1906 which allowed only “free white men” and “aliens of African nativity” to become naturalized citizens.
In his defence, Thind did not challenge the constitutionality of the racial restrictions, but made an extensive argument that as he was a “high-caste Hindu” and an Aryan, he came under the category of “free white persons” within the meaning of the naturalization act. Indians from North India and most Europeans are Indo-European people, he said. Elaborating on his argument, Thind said that since Aryans were the conquerors of the indigenous people of India, they had greater similarity to ‘white people’.
Thind’s lawyers also argued that as a “high caste Hindu” he even had a revulsion to marrying an Indian woman of a “lower race.” Unfortunately for Thind, the court decided to rely on another case where it was held that “white people” were only those who were members of the Caucasian race. As a result of the court’s decision, the first Indian to become an American citizen, A.K. Mozumdar, also had his American citizenship revoked.