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Justices weigh ethnic Serb woman’s bid to regain U.S. citizenship

News 26 Apr 2017

left right FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts speaks at the dedication of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, U.S., September 24, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo 1/2 left right FILE PHOTO: A figure of a child holding an open book decorates a flagpole at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo 2/2 By Lawrence Hurley | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts raised concerns on Wednesday about the Trump administration's stance in an immigration case, saying it could make it too easy for the government to strip people of citizenship for lying about minor infractions.

Roberts and other Supreme Court justices indicated support for a deported ethnic Serb immigrant over her bid to regain her U.S. citizenship after it was stripped because she falsely stated that her husband had not served in the Bosnian Serb army in the 1990s after Yugoslavia's collapse.

Roberts seemed particularly concerned that the government, under the view expressed by the administration's lawyer, could revoke citizenship for something as minor as applicants failing to disclose that they have driven above the speed limit on a form that asks them to reveal any instances of breaking the law.

"That to me is troublesome," the conservative chief justice said.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer seemed to share Roberts' concern, describing the government's argument as surprising.

The case was the last oral argument of the court's current term, and a ruling is due by the end of June.

Divna Maslenjak entered the United States with her husband and two children in 2000 after being granted refugee status over a claimed fear of persecution in Bosnia, and settled in Ohio. She became a U.S. citizen in 2007. At issue in the case is her concealment of her husband Ratko's service in Bosnian Serb Army at the time of a notorious massacre of Bosnian Muslims.

Maslenjak's citizenship was revoked and she and her husband were deported to Serbia last October.

Her legal problems arose when her husband was charged with making a false statement and convicted in 2006 for failing to tell the U.S. government he had served in the Bosnian Serb army during the fierce 1990s conflict between Serbs in Bosnia and the majority Muslim population.

The U.S. government said military records showed he served as an officer in the Bosnian Serb army's Bratunac Brigade when it participated in the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995, though the military records did not directly implicate him in war crimes.

Divna Maslenjak later testified at her husband's asylum hearing in 2009 in a bid to help him avoid deportation. She admitted that when she had applied to be a refugee, she had not revealed that from 1992 to 1997 the family lived in Bosnia and that her husband had served in the military.

In 2013, she was indicted for lying on her citizenship application and subsequently convicted, meaning she would lose her U.S. nationality.

The legal question is whether her false statements had a material effect on the U.S. decision to grant her refugee status. Maslenjak maintains the reason she was granted refugee status was because of her fear of ethnic persecution in Bosnia at the hands of Muslims.

The U.S. government has argued that it only matters that she made a false statement, not whether it had any impact on the decision to grant refugee status.

President Donald Trump has sought to restrict immigration into the United States and deport people who have entered the U.S. illegally. His administration took over the Maslenjak case from former President Barack Obama's administration, which took the same position.

Even if Maslenjak wins at the Supreme Court, it will not resolve her case, as the government could argue in lower courts that her lie had a material impact on the decision to grant her entry.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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