Supreme Court Strikes Down Citizenship Law Gender Bias

Citizenship rights for children of unwed parents of any gender are now equal

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Jun 13, 2017 at 12:01 PM ET

A Supreme Court decision on Monday struck down an immigration law that favored the children of unwed mothers over those of unwed fathers. But even with the decision, it might not make things any easier for those children.

The 6-2 decision ruled that a law dictating how citizenship is passed down from American citizens to children born in another other country gave preferential treatment to unwed mothers over unwed fathers. The court’s decision was based off the reasoning that mothers needed to have spent far less time in America to be allowed to pass citizenship onto their children.

The case was brought by Luis Ramón Morales-Santana, who was born in the Dominican Republic to a native mother and an American father. But the father, José, was 18 years old in 1919, when he left his home in Puerto Rico for a job in the Dominican Republic. He stayed there, and his girlfriend gave birth to Luis in 1962. The couple later married, and Luis moved to America when he was 13.

At the time of Morales-Santana’s birth, immigration laws required the U.S. spouse of a married couple of mixed citizenship or the American citizen father of an unmarried couple to have lived in the country for at least 10 years, five of which occurred after they turned 14. This needed to happen in order for a family to be able to pass citizenship down to their children who were not born in the United States. José was just 20 days shy of meeting this requirement when he left Puerto Rico, and therefore did not pass American citizenship to his son.

But married couples who were both U.S. citizens and unwed American mothers only had to have lived in America for one year. The assumption behind the difference between unwed mothers and fathers, the court said, was that unwed fathers would be out of the picture, giving unwed American mothers the same influence over and responsibilities for their children as a married couple of two U.S. citizens would have.

Even though Morales-Santana’s parents later married and his father was, by all accounts, an equal presence in his son’s life, the law dictated that Morales-Santana was not an American citizen. This wasn’t an issue for Morales-Santana until he was convicted of several felonies and ordered to be deported in 2000. That’s when his lawyer said that the unequal citizenship requirements were a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s right to equal protection.

The Supreme Court agreed with Morales-Santana, affirming an earlier Court of Appeals decision that the law was unconstitutional. But that doesn’t mean things went in his favor. Rather than give him citizenship by following the same residency requirements that would have applied had his mother been the citizen, as the Court of Appeals did, the court ruled that the party that was receiving favorable treatment — the unwed mothers — should not be entitled to such.

“This Court is not equipped to grant the relief Morales-Santana seeks, i.e., extending to his father (and, derivatively, to him) the benefit of the one-year physical-presence term,” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the the opinion.

So while Morales-Santana is not an American citizen, citizenship laws no longer assume that the father of an unwed couple does not have an equal hand in raising his child. It could be seen as a victory for equal rights, if not for the person who was hoping they would save him from being deported from the country that has been his home for decades.