Justice Kagan, writing for a six-justice majority, held that the text of §1425(a) makes clear that, to secure a conviction, the Government must establish that the defendant’s illegal act played a role in her acquisition of citizenship. The pro-prosecutor wing of the Court, Justices Gorsuch, Alito, and Thomas, all concurred in the judgement, but differed in their analyses.
To “procure . . . naturalization” means to obtain it. And the adverbial phrase “contrary to law” specifies how a person must procure naturalization so as to run afoul of the statute: illegally. Thus, someone “procures, contrary to law, naturalization” when she obtains citizenship illegally. As ordinary usage demonstrates, the most natural understanding of that phrase is that the illegal act must have somehow contributed to the obtaining of citizenship. To get citizenship unlawfully is to get it through an unlawful means—and that is just to say that an illegality played some role in its acquisition. The Government’s contrary view—that §1425(a) requires only a violation in the course of procuring naturalization—falters on the way language naturally works.
Suppose that an applicant for citizenship fills out the paperwork in a government office with a knife tucked away in her handbag. She has violated the law against possessing a weapon in a federal building, and she has done so in the course of procuring citizenship, but nobody would say she has “procured” her citizenship “contrary to law.” That is because the violation of law and the acquisition of citizenship in that example are merely coincidental: The one has no causal relation to the other.
Although the Government attempts to define such examples out of the statute, that effort falls short for multiple reasons. Most important, the Government’s attempted carve-out does nothing to alter the linguistic understanding that gives force to the examples the Government would exclude. Under ordinary rules of language usage, §1425(a) demands a causal or means-end connection between a legal violation and naturalization. The broader statutory context reinforces the point, because the Government’s reading would create a profound mismatch between the requirements for naturalization and those for denaturalization: Some legal violations that do not justify denying citizenship would nonetheless justify revoking it later. For example, lies told out of “embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy” (rather than “for the purpose of obtaining [immigration] benefits”) are not generally disqualifying under the statutory requirement of “good moral character.” Kungys v. United States, 485 U. S. 759, 780; 8 U. S. C. §1101(f)(6). But under the Government’s reading of §1425(a), any lie told in the naturalization process would provide a basis for rescinding citizenship. The Government could thus take away on one day what it was required to give the day before. And by so unmooring the revocation of citizenship from its award, the Government opens the door to a world of disquieting consequences—which this Court would need far stronger textual support to believe Congress intended.