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[WASHINGTON] President Donald Trump's efforts to tighten the screws on US immigration suffered a blow on Thursday, when the US Supreme Court set more restrictions on the government's ability to strip naturalised Americans of US citizenship.
In a unanimous 9-0 vote, the justices said a naturalised American citizen can only be stripped of citizenship for lying to the government if the false statements would have led officials to deny his or her original entry into the country as an immigrant.
The decision - which could have wide-ranging repercussions for millions of immigrants, refugees and naturalised citizens - came in a case concerning a Bosnian Serb couple who didn't come clean about the husband's wartime past.
Divna Maslenjak broke US law when she failed to tell US embassy staff that her husband was in the Bosnian Serb army during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war when she applied for US asylum for her family, which they received in 1999.
As a result, US government lawyers contended that the US citizenship Maslenjak obtained eight years later is void. She and her family were deported to Serbia in October.
But the Supreme Court justices questioned whether omissions seen to be lies were in themselves enough to forfeit American citizenship.
"The government must establish that an illegal act by the defendant played some role in her acquisition of citizenship," Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion.
"When the illegal act is a false statement, that means demonstrating that the defendant lied about facts that would have mattered to an immigration official, because they would have justified denying naturalisation or would predictably have led to other facts warranting that result."
Every year, some 780,000 people become Americans by choice, through a process requiring them to be of "good moral character." They must mention any criminal record or past offences, even minor ones.
If someone is later deemed to have lied, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Homeland Security Department, says their "citizenship may be taken away."
The justices expressed alarm at the consequences of letting the government revoke citizenship on the basis of even minor or irrelevant lies.
"Suppose, for reasons of embarrassment or what-have-you, a person concealed her membership in an online support group or failed to disclose a prior speeding violation," wrote Judge Kagan.
Allowing the government to revoke citizenship on that "meager" basis "would give prosecutors nearly limitless leverage - and afford newly naturalized Americans precious little security."