Law Can't Favor Women in Child's Citizenship Case, Supreme Court Rules

In a victory for gender equity but a hollow one for a man facing deportation, the U.S. Supreme Court said immigration laws unlawfully discriminated against men by requiring them to be citizens longer than women when they seek citizenship for their children.

"The gender line Congress drew is incompatible with the requirement that the government accord to all persons 'the equal protection of the laws,'" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority in Sessions v. Morales-Santana.

The Immigration and Nationality Act had required an American man to be a resident for 10 years to confer citizenship on a child born later outside the United States. A woman, on the other hand, needed to be a resident for only one year.

The court said that law was unconstitutional. It did not help Luis Ramon Morales-Santana, however, whose father was an American.

Deportation

Morales-Santana was born in the Dominican Republic. His father was an American citizen; his mother was not.

The family moved to the United States when the child was 13, and he lived in the country for decades. Federal authorities sought to deport him, however, after he was convicted of serious crimes in New York.

He claimed American citizenship to avoid deportation, but the law at the time said an unwed father had to reside in the United States for 10 years before siring a foreign-born child to transmit citizenship to the child. Morales-Santana remained in deportation facility pending an appeal.

The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law was unconstitutional and declared him a citizen. The Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality conclusion, but reversed the ruling granting citizenship.

Equal Protection

The immigration laws were enacted during "an era when the law books of our Nation were rife with overbroad generalizations about the way men and women are," he court said. The law was built on a false assumption "that unwed fathers care little about, indeed are strangers to, their children."

"Lump characterization of that kind, however, no longer passes equal protection inspection," Ginsburg wrote.

The court split the baby, so to speak, saying both fathers and mothers will have to establish residency for five years to satisfy the citizenship requirement. Morales-Santana, however, did not qualify under the new rule.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an amicus in the case, declared it a victory for gender equity.

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