The U.S. Supreme Court this week struck down part of the Immigration and Nationality Act that favored mothers over fathers in conferring U.S. citizenship to children born abroad to an unwed American parent. The opinion in Sessions v. Morales-Santana, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was groundbreaking and constitutes a great leap toward gender equality in the nation’s immigration law.
The case was brought by Ramon Morales-Santana, who was born in the Dominican Republic to an unwed Dominican mother and a U.S.-citizen father. Under the law at the time, a child born abroad to an unwed American father was automatically a U.S. citizen if the father previously lived in the U.S. for a continuous period of ten years, five of them after the age of 14. (In 1986, Congress amended the law so that unwed U.S.-citizen fathers need only to have lived in the United States for five years.) But the law had an exception under which the child of an unwed mother is born a U.S. citizen if the mother previously lived in the U.S. for even one year.
At the time Morales-Santana was born, his father was 20 days short of meeting the time required to qualify his son for automatic citizenship at birth. Morales-Santana’s parents eventually married, and he came to the U.S. with his parents as a permanent resident. In 2000, he was convicted of several felonies, and the government sought to deport him. In opposing deportation, Morales-Santana asserted that he was a U.S. citizen because his father had been one. He argued that it was unconstitutional for the law to treat male and female parents differently and that the one-year residency requirement applicable to mothers should be applied to his father, which would mean he was born a U.S. citizen.
On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed that the different treatment of mothers and fathers under the citizenship law was unconstitutional sex discrimination. The child of an unwed American mother cannot be granted automatic citizenship more easily than the child of an unwed American father. Justice Ginsberg observed that the more favorable treatment for mothers was based on the premise that an unmarried mother is a child’s “natural and sole guardian.” She noted that such “overbroad generalizations” perpetuate stereotypes assigning the role of “primary family caregiver” to the mother and minimizing the role of fathers.
However, the Court held that it was unable to grant the relief Morales-Santana requested and declined to extend the shorter-residency exception to fathers. Until Congress steps in and reforms the law, the longer residency period—currently, five years, with two of them after the age of 14—will apply to all parents. Unfortunately for Morales-Santana, the stricter residency requirements in place at the time of his birth must be applied to him, meaning that the Court’s holding does not confer him with citizenship. Still, his case is historic as the first time the Supreme Court has applied the concept of gender equality to U.S. laws on citizenship.