Supreme Court Rules Gender-Based Citizenship Requirement is Unconstitutional

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On Monday, the Supreme Court struck down a federal immigration law that made it easier for children of U.S. citizen mothers to obtain citizenship than children of U.S. citizen fathers.

Per the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, the citizenship of children born outside of the United States to one U.S. citizen parent and one parent who is a citizen of another nation is decided differently depending on whether the U.S. citizen parent is the child’s mother or father. A child of a U.S. citizen mother would automatically become a U.S. citizen as long as the mother had lived in the U.S. for one year. However, a child of a U.S. citizen father would only automatically become a U.S. citizen if the father had lived in the U.S. for five years before the child was born, and if at least two of those years had occurred after the father had turned 14.

In an 8-0 decision in Sessions v. Morales-Santana, the Court held that such a “gender line” was “incompatible” with the Equal Protections Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution and was therefore unconstitutional. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not contribute because he had not yet been confirmed as a justice in November 2016 when the court heard the case.

Luis Ramón Morales-Santana has lived in the U.S. since he was 13. When Morales-Santana was born, the requirement was that fathers needed to have lived in the U.S. for 10 years before the child was born, five of which had to be after the age of 14–as opposed to the current requirement of five years in the U.S., including two after age 14.

His father, José Morales, moved to the Dominican Republic just 20 days before turning 19 and, therefore, did not meet the earlier requirement of living in the U.S. for at least five years after turning 14. Without his father satisfying that requirement, Morales-Santana was not considered a U.S. citizen. The U.S. government attempted to remove Morales-Santana from the country in 2000 based on several criminal convictions.

Morales-Santana asserted that the U.S. government’s refusal to grant him citizenship violated the Equal Protections Clause because it hinged on gender based classification of his parentage. Had Morales-Santana’s mother been a U.S. citizen and lived in the country for one year, he would have already been considered a citizen.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion of the court in which she explained that laws granting or denying benefits based on the sex of a parent are subject to “heightened scrutiny.”

Before 1940, Ginsburg said, standards for citizenship of children born abroad were rooted in two gender based assumptions. “In marriage, husband is dominant, wife subordinate; unwed mother is the natural and sole guardian of a nonmarital child,” Ginsburg wrote, describing those assumptions. Children of married parents derived their citizenship status from their fathers, while children of unwed parents derived their citizenship status from their mothers.

The Nationality Act of 1940 eliminated fathers’ sole control over children’s citizenship, instead allowing either married U.S. citizen mothers or fathers to pass citizenship on to their child. The Act also codified unwed mothers’ ability to pass citizenship on to their child, but did not do so for unwed fathers since mothers were regarded as children’s sole guardians in cases in which the parents were not married.

The U.S. government argued that when a child is born to unwed parents, the mother is the only legally recognized parent at the child’s birth; the father is acknowledged after the fact. Ginsburg explained that, according to the U.S. government’s argument, the lengthier residency requirement for U.S. citizen fathers is warranted due to the “‘competing national influence’ of the alien mother.”

However, Ginsburg wrote that the assumption is based on “the long-held view that unwed fathers care little about, indeed are strangers to, their children.” Such a characterization, she says, “no longer passes equal protection inspection.”

The Court held that the gender-based distinction violated the equal protection clause, but did not decide whether the requirement for U.S. citizen mothers should be applied equally to fathers.

Ginsburg said Congress had made an exception for unwed mothers, but not for unwed fathers. Therefore, it is up to Congress, not the Court, to decide whether the standard for unwed mothers should be extended to unwed fathers.

Marcus Dieterle
Marcus is an editorial intern at Law Street. He is a rising senior at Towson University where he is double majoring in mass communication (with a concentration in journalism and new media) and political science. When he isn’t in the newsroom, you can probably find him reading on the train, practicing his Portuguese, or eating too much pasta. Contact Marcus at



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