Supreme Court Strikes Down Sexist Citizenship Law

On Monday, the Supreme Court struck down a citizenship law that mandated tougher citizenship eligibility requirements for children born abroad to unmarried American fathers than were required of children born abroad to unmarried American mothers. Within the ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, which struck down the federal citizenship law’s gender discrimination policy.

The case, Sessions v. Morales-Santana, was filed due to a law that provided preferential treatment to unwed American mothers who gave birth while abroad. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952 required unwed American fathers to spend at least five years living in the United States in order for their children born abroad to receive citizenship, while unwed American mothers were only required to live in the United States for one year. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in an 8-0 decision that this gender distinction was unconstitutional due to the equal protection accorded to citizens under the Fifth Amendment.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Ginsburg, noted that the gender distinction within federal citizenship laws date “from an era when the lawbooks of our Nation were rife with overbroad generalizations about the way men and women are.” This opinion, supported by six of the nine judges, acknowledges that gender discrimination providing preferential treatment to mothers is based on outdated views of women as innately more domestic and parental than men.

Meanwhile, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed to support the overturning of the Second Circuit’s ruling, but wrote a concurring opinion opposing Ginsburg’s reasoning. Within the concurring opinion, Justice Thomas stated that while he supported the Court’s decision to overturn, he believed it was “unnecessary… to decide whether the 1952 decision of the INA was unconstitutional.”

Justice Ginsburg noted, “two once habitual, but now untenable, assumptions pervaded our Nation’s citizenship laws and underpinned judicial and administrative rulings: In marriage, husband is dominant, wife subordinate; unwed mother is the natural and sole guardian of a nonmarital child.” Significantly, Ginsburg clarified that this preferential treatment of women is an exception to the general rule of gender inequality, which typically preferences men over women.

Unlike previous cases of gender discrimination that have reached the Supreme Court, the ruling on Sessions v. Morales-Santana did not extend the more favorable treatment to both sexes. Rather, the favorable treatment of mothers was eliminated, and now both unwed mothers and fathers must live in the United States for at least five years for their children born abroad to be granted citizenship. Unfortunately this decision increased the requirements for unwed mothers to pass citizenship to their children born abroad, though Ginsburg noted that Congress has the option to decrease these requirements in the future.


Media Sources: Washington Post 6/12/17; NPR 6/12/17; Reuters 6/12/17; SCOTUSblog 6/12/17

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