Materiality plays an important role in limiting the reach of laws that penalize misrepresentations. Laws that include no materiality element punish any covered misrepresentation regardless of its relevance—like lying about hair color on a loan application. By contrast, laws that include a materiality element withhold punishment for immaterial misrepresentations of that kind—in other words, misrepresentations that have no tendency to affect the ultimate decision.
Our immigration laws make it a deportable offense for a noncitizen to “falsely represent” herself as a U.S. citizen for a purpose or benefit under the law. Although this law has been on the books for decades, a key question about its reach remains open: Does it include a materiality element? The Board of Immigration Appeals and three federal circuit courts have said “yes,” holding that misrepresentations of U.S. citizenship must be material to trigger deportability. But in a recent panel decision adopted by the en banc court, the Eleventh Circuit said “no,” holding that the unambiguous statutory text includes no materiality element.
This Article examines the history of these immigration statutes and demonstrates why the Eleventh Circuit’s holding was wrong, although mainly for a reason no court has yet addressed: the common-law origins of the relevant statutory text. Under well-established principles of statutory construction, Congress is presumed to legislate with the understanding that common-law phrases carry their common-law meaning. At common law, the phrase “false representation” carried with it an implicit materiality element. Therefore, the immigration statutes at issue presumptively incorporate materiality because they penalize “false representations” of U.S. citizenship. This presumption is confirmed by other contextual clues. And, as this Article explains, ensuring fidelity to the statutes’ implicit materiality element is especially important given the statutes’ breadth and the draconian consequences that follow from the Eleventh Circuit’s contrary holding.
Elizabeth Montano and Edward F. Ramos,
Does It Really Matter?: Making the Case for a Materiality Requirement in False Claims to U.S. Citizenship Under the Immigration and Nationality Act,
75 U. MIA L. Rev.
Available at: https://repository.law.miami.edu/umlr/vol75/iss4/16