Fedorenko v. United States
Annotate this Case
449 U.S. 490 (1981)
U.S. Supreme Court
Fedorenko v. United States, 449 U.S. 490 (1981)
Fedorenko v. United States
Argued October 15, 1980
Decided January 21, 1981
449 U.S. 490
The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 (DPA) enabled European refugees driven from their homelands by World War II to emigrate to the United States without regard to traditional immigration quotas. It provided that any person
"who shall willfully make a misrepresentation for the purpose of gaining admission into the United States as an eligible displaced person shall thereafter not be admissible into the United States,"
and the applicable definition of "displaced persons" specifically excluded individuals who had "assisted the enemy in persecuting civil[ians]" or had "voluntarily assisted the enemy forces" in their operations. Petitioner was admitted to the United States under a DPA visa that had been issued on the basis of his 1949 application, which misrepresented his wartime activities and concealed the fact that, after being captured by the Germans while serving in the Russian Army, he had served as an armed guard at the Nazi concentration camp at Treblinka in Poland. Subsequently, he became an American citizen in 1970 on the basis of his visa papers and his naturalization application, which also did not disclose his wartime service as a concentration camp guard. The Government thereafter brought this denaturalization action under § 340(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which requires revocation of United States citizenship that was "illegally procured" or "procured by concealment of a material fact or by willful misrepresentation." The Government charged that petitioner, in applying for his DPA visa and for citizenship, had willfully concealed that he had served as an armed guard at Treblinka and had committed crimes against inmates of the camp because they were Jewish, and that therefore he had procured his naturalization illegally or by willfully misrepresenting material facts. The Government presented witnesses who testified that they had seen petitioner commit acts of violence against camp inmates, and an expert witness in the interpretation and application of the DPA, who testified that petitioner would have been found ineligible for a visa as a matter of law if it had been determined that he had been an armed guard at the camp, regardless of whether or not he had volunteered for service or had committed atrocities against inmates. In his testimony, petitioner admitted that he deliberately gave false information in connection with
his application for the DPA visa but claimed that he had been forced to serve as a guard and denied any personal involvement in the atrocities committed at the camp. The District Court entered judgment for petitioner, finding, inter alia, that, although petitioner had lied about his wartime activities when he applied for a visa in 1949, he had been forced to serve as a guard, and the Government had not met its burden of proving that he had committed war crimes or atrocities at Treblinka. The court held that, because disclosure of petitioner's involuntary service as a concentration camp guard would not have been grounds for denial of citizenship, his false statements about his wartime activities were not misrepresentations of "material facts" within the meaning of the denaturalization statute under the materiality standard announced in Chaunt v. United States, 364 U. S. 350. As an alternative basis for its decision, the court held that, even assuming misrepresentation of material facts, equitable and mitigating circumstances -- the inconclusiveness of the evidence that petitioner had committed war crimes or atrocities and the uncontroverted evidence that he had been responsible and law-abiding since coming to the United States -- required that he be permitted to retain his citizenship. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the District Court had misinterpreted the Chaunt test and that it had no discretion to enter judgment for petitioner in the face of a finding that he had procured his naturalization by willfully concealing material facts.
Held: Petitioner's citizenship must be revoked under § 340(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act because it was "illegally procured." Pp. 449 U. S. 505-518.
(a) The Government carries a heavy burden of proof in a denaturalization proceeding, and evidence justifying revocation of citizenship must be clear, unequivocal, and convincing, and not leave the issue in doubt. However, there must be strict compliance with all the congressionally imposed prerequisites to the acquisition of citizenship. Failure to comply with any of these conditions renders the certificate of citizenship "illegally procured," and naturalization that is unlawfully procured can be set aside. Pp. 449 U. S. 505-507.
(b) The DPA's prohibition against admission of any person "who shall willfully make a misrepresentation" to gain admission into the United States as an "eligible displaced person," only applies to willful misrepresentations about "material facts." Under the analysis of the courts below, the misrepresentation that raised the materiality issue in this case was contained in petitioner's application for a visa. The plain language of the definition of "displaced persons" for purposes of the DPA as excluding individuals who "assisted the enemy in persecuting
civil[ians]" mandates the literal interpretation, rejected by the District Court, that an individual's service as a concentration camp armed guard -- whether voluntary or involuntary -- made him ineligible for a visa. Since a misrepresentation must be considered material if disclosure of the true facts would have made the applicant ineligible for a visa, and since disclosure of the true facts here would, as a matter of law, have made petitioner ineligible for a visa, it is unnecessary to determine whether the materiality test of Chaunt as to applications for citizenship also applies to false statements in visa applications. Pp. 449 U. S. 507-514.
(c) In 1970, when petitioner filed his petition for and was admitted to citizenship, the Immigration and Nationality Act required an applicant for citizenship to be lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence, which admission, in turn, required that the individual possess a valid unexpired immigrant visa. And, under the law applicable at the time of petitioner's initial entry into the United States, a visa obtained through a material misrepresentation was not valid. Since petitioner thus failed to satisfy a statutory requirement which Congress had imposed as a prerequisite to the acquisition of citizenship by naturalization, his citizenship must be revoked because it was "illegally procured." Pp. 449 U. S. 514-516.
(d) Although a denaturalization action is a suit in equity, a district court lacks equitable discretion to refrain from entering a judgment of denaturalization against a naturalized citizen whose citizenship was procured illegally or by willful misrepresentation of material facts. Once a district court determines that the Government has met its burden of proving that a naturalized citizen obtained his citizenship illegally or by willful misrepresentation, it has no discretion to excuse the conduct. Pp. 449 U. S. 516-518.
597 F.2d 946, affirmed.
MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., concurred in the judgment. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 449 U. S. 518. WHITE, J., post, p. 449 U. S. 526, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 449 U. S. 530, filed dissenting opinions