The U.S. Supreme Court this week found that the Immigration and Naturalization Act’s provisions on citizenship discriminated on the basis of gender, by allowing unmarried U.S. citizen mothers to convey citizenship to their children more easily than other U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, the Court held that the “solution” for the statute’s discrimination was to eliminate the favorable treatment granted to unmarried mothers, rather than allowing unmarried fathers to benefit from the same laws.
Laws granting automatic citizenship to children of U.S. citizens have long differentiated between people based on gender, making it easier for unmarried U.S. citizen mothers to convey citizenship to their children. Jose Morales-Santana was born in the Dominican Republic, where his parents had met after his U.S. citizen father moved there to work as a mechanic supporting U.S. troops. Under the statute, Jose’s father could not automatically convey U.S. citizenship to his son because he had lived in the United States less than five years. If he were Jose’s mother, he would have been able to convey citizenship to his son after living only one year in the United States. In Sessions v. Morales-Santana, Jose argued that the Constitution prohibits basing citizenship on flawed gender stereotypes.
The Supreme Court agreed with Jose, rejected the government’s argument that equal protection was inapplicable in the citizenship context, and held that the statute violated the Constitution.
“Immigration is not a Constitution-free zone,” said Charles Roth, director of litigation, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center. “This ruling establishes that the Constitution applies even to laws governing citizenship. Unfortunately, the remedy the Court offers in this case will make access to citizenship even further from reach for many people raised by U.S. citizens.”
The Supreme Court decided not to cure the gender discrimination by allowing the children of unmarried fathers to have the same rights granted to the children of unmarried mothers, but by removing the benefit from the children of unmarried mothers.
“It’s an odd remedy the Court granted,” Roth said, “when it finds that the statute has unconstitutionally discriminated for 50 years, but grants no remedy to the people affected, other than a toothless admonition for Congress to correct the problem for future generations.”
The National Immigrant Justice Center, American Immigration Lawyers Association, and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Center filed an amicus brief which defended the authority of the courts to grant a remedy in this case.
The Court held that its decision applies “prospectively.” Anyone who obtained citizenship under the statute as written does not lose their citizenship under this decision. Therefore, anyone who obtained citizenship before today should be able to obtain proof of their citizenship (such as passports or certificates of citizenship) through ordinary application routes.