In Maslenjak v. United States, the Supreme Court will decide whether the government can revoke naturalization based on immaterial false statements made during the naturalization process. Although the issue is primarily one of statutory interpretation, major constitutional questions lurk beneath the surface. As Patrick Weil explains in his fascinating book, “The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic,” 50 years ago the Supreme Court put a stop to the government’s once-common practice of denaturalization, and in the process “redefin[ed] the country’s understanding of sovereignty and citizenship.” The court’s decision in Maslenjak is likely to be informed by this legal and historical precedent.
Today, it is virtually impossible for native-born U.S. citizens to be stripped of their citizenship, and naturalized citizens can only lose their status if they “knowingly procured” citizenship in violation of the law. Throughout much of the 20th century, however, the government could terminate the citizenship of both native-born and naturalized citizens for a variety of conduct. For example, between 1907 and 1922, women who married foreign men automatically lost their citizenship, and the government could also denationalize U.S. citizens for voting in foreign elections or deserting from the armed forces. Naturalized citizens were at even greater risk. They could be denaturalized for a host of activities deemed “un-American,” such as speaking out against the U.S. government, participating in certain political organizations, or taking any action suggesting a lack of “attachment” to the U.S. Constitution. The numbers are surprisingly large: Between 1907 and 1967, over 22,000 Americans were denaturalized — more than in any other democracy. As Weil puts it, by the middle of the 20th century, “American citizenship had become conditional.”
Weil explains that denaturalization was often used as a weapon against the government’s critics. Most infamously, the government stripped prominent anarchist Emma Goldman of her citizenship in 1919 and then deported her. In her essay “Woman Without a Country,” Goldman wrote that “[t]o have a country implies … the possession of a certain guarantee of security, the assurance of having some spot you can call your own and that no one can alienate from you.” After being expelled from the United States, she concluded that “[c]itizenship has become bankrupt: it has lost its essential meaning, its one-time guarantee.”
In a series of decisions starting in the 1940s, the Supreme Court gradually put an end to the practice. Weil explains that the court’s early decisions were grounded on the individual’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process, but eventually the court broadened its reasoning to redefine the relationship between citizens and the state. In Afroyim v. Rusk, Justice Hugo Black wrote: “In our country, the people are sovereign and the Government cannot sever its relationship to the people by taking away their citizenship,” so it would be “completely incongruous to have a rule of law under which a group of citizens temporarily in office can deprive another group of citizens of their citizenship.” Since Afroyim was decided in 1967, fewer than 150 people have been denaturalized, most for committing fraud in the naturalization process.
In Maslenjak, the government argues that the statute at issue, 18 U.S.C. 1425(a), requires proof only that Maslenjak made a false statement in her naturalization application, regardless of whether it was material to the decision to grant that application. The ability of a foreign citizen to naturalize is a privilege granted by Congress, the government explains, and therefore can be withheld or withdrawn upon a showing that the applicant failed to follow the statutory requirements to obtain it. Maslenjak and the “friends of the court” who filed briefs on her behalf argue that the government’s interpretation raises serious constitutional questions. The government’s reading, they claim, would put at risk the status of many of the nation’s 20 million naturalized citizens, some of whom may have made trivial misstatements in their naturalization applications that, years later, could be used to strip them of their citizenship. Maslenjak argues that this interpretation would reduce naturalization to “second-class citizenship” and conflicts with Supreme Court precedent putting an end to conditional citizenship. Weil’s book provides a useful historical context for a debate that may shape the court’s decision in Maslenjak’s case.