Balkan wars, Bosnia, citizenship, deportation, Im-Politic, Immigration, Immigration and Citizenship Services, John Roberts, Muslims, naturalization, refugees, Reuters, Serbs, Srebrenica, Stephen Breyer, Supreme Court, Trump
Question: When is serving in a military unit that’s committed horrendous war crimes the legal equivalent of getting a speeding ticket? Or absentmindedly bringing a key-chain pen knife into a government office building? Or maybe even jaywalking? Answer: When the U.S. Supreme Court nowadays is evaluating an immigration case.
Think I’m kidding? Then check out this Reuters account of a hearing held by the high court that dealt with an immigrant from Bosnia who was deported and stripped of her citizenship last October. The reason? She had lied on her application to enter the country as a refugee. Now, Divna Maslenjak is seeking to restore the status quo ante. And according to the Reuters piece, several Justices are concerned that in defending the U.S. government’s previous decision (made, mind you, under the Obama administration), President Trump’s Justice Department is laying the groundwork for revoking citizenship for false statements that had no significant influence on the original refugee decision.
Nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Everyone, for example, forgets things or gets details confused. These lapses are particularly understandable in the chaotic conditions with which most refugees struggle. Nor could any reasonable person quibble with Chief Justice John Roberts concern that the Trump administration position (even though it’s drawn straight from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ naturalization form) could enable the government to strip citizenship from naturalized Americans for lying or for omitting information about minor legal infractions that even the most scrupulously law-abiding folks everywhere are hard-pressed to avoid completely.
As Roberts noted, “in the past he has exceeded the speed limit while driving. If immigrants failed to disclose that on a citizenship application form asking them to list any instances of breaking the law, they could later lose their citizenship, the conservative chief justice said. ‘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?'”
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, who is viewed as considerably more liberal than Roberts, agreed, “noting he had once walked into a government building with a pocketknife on his key chain in violation of the law.”
Added Breyer: “It’s, to me, rather surprising that the government of the United States thinks that Congress is interpreting this statute and wanted it interpreted in a way that would throw Into doubt the citizenship of vast percentages of all naturalized citizens.”
Fair enough. But the lie in question did not concern a speeding ticket or an innocent failure to check the contents of one’s pockets. Nor did it concern an intrinsically legal but possibly questionable act that had no important bearing on Maslenjak’s application for refugee status. In fact, it concerned a subject central to her request: Despite telling the government that, as ethnic Serbs, she and her family feared ethnic persecution by Bosnia’s Muslims, she never mentioned that, as the Reuters article reports, her husband (who had received refugee status when she did) served “in a Bosnian Serb Army brigade that participated in the notorious 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.” And P.S.: He lied about the matter as well.
Now it’s possible that the husband was completely uninvolved in this, or any other, atrocity (another subject about which the naturalization form inquires). It’s also possible that, whether he was complicit or not, that’s what Divna, his wife, believed. Or he simply could have lied to her. If he was innocent, he might have been afraid that the relevant American authorities simply would not have believed him. Certainly, no one could blame inhabitants of countries ruled by oppressive and/or corrupt governments for not trusting U.S. officials right off the bat.
But apparently, neither spouse has offered any such excuses. Nor did any of the Justices apparently mention them. Both the Maslenjaks and Roberts and Breyer (and possibly some of their colleagues) seem to be focused on technicalities – and perhaps the former and their lawyers are counting on the Trump administration’s “anti-immigrant” reputation and the resulting backlash to help sway the Court.
The Justices’ final decision isn’t due until late June. It could be a great test of whether they, like so much of the rest of the country, have succumbed to Trump Derangement Syndrome.