U.S. Supreme Court cases reveal gender-based discrimination and absurdity in citizenship laws

At the end of its most recent term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two important decisions in cases involving qualifications for U.S. citizenship.

Sessions v. Morales-Santana

Luis Morales-Santana was born in the Dominican Republic in 1962.  At the time, his parents, José and Yrma, were unmarried.  José had been born in Puerto Rico and was a U.S. citizen, while Yrma was a Dominican citizen.  Many years later, after having moved to the United States and been convicted of multiple criminal offenses, Morales-Santana was placed in removal proceedings in immigration court, to be deported as an “alien” from the U.S.  As a defense to removal, Morales-Santana claimed that he would qualify as a U.S. citizen but for a provision in U.S. law that included different requirements for acquiring U.S. citizenship through U.S. citizen fathers versus through U.S. citizen mothers.

U.S. law prescribes rules for under what conditions a child born abroad may acquire U.S. citizenship at birth through one or both of his parents.  But the rules vary depending on whether the child’s parents are married and, if they are not, which parent is a U.S. citizen – the child’s mother or the child’s father.  At the time of Morales-Santana’s birth, a child born abroad acquired U.S. citizenship if one of his parents was a U.S. citizen who had been physically present in the U.S. for at least ten years before the child’s birth, at least five of which were after the parent turned 14 years old.  If the child’s parents were unmarried at the time of the child’s birth, this same rule applied if the child had a U.S. citizen father.  But in cases where the child had only an unwed U.S. citizen mother, Congress provided an exception to that general rule and held that the unwed mother must have been physically present in the U.S. for only one year at any time before the child’s birth.  (Congress later changed the law and reduced the physical presence requirement from five years to two years after age 14 but continued to apply different standards for men and women.)

In Morales-Santana’s case, his unwed U.S. citizen father had lived in Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory) until he moved to the Dominican Republic 20 days before his 19th birthday, thus just falling short of attaining five years of physical presence after he turned 14.  Consequently, Morales-Santana did not meet the requirements for having acquired U.S. citizenship at birth and was an “alien” subject to removal for his crimes.  But he argued that the law’s differing requirements for unwed U.S.-citizen mothers compared to unwed U.S.-citizen fathers amounted to unconstitutional gender-based discrimination.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the law violated the equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution and applied the rules for children of U.S. citizen mothers to Morales-Santana, making him a U.S. citizen not subject to removal.

The Supreme Court last year agreed to hear the case to decide two issues: whether the law unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of gender, and, if so, what the proper remedy would be to correct such discrimination.  In 2010, the Court heard the case of U.S. v. Flores-Villar and considered the same issues, but split 4-4 due to the recusal of Justice Elena Kagan.

This time, the Court’s June 12 decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was abundantly clear – the discrepancy in the law is “stunningly anachronistic.”  Ginsburg explains that laws that discriminate on the basis of gender are subject to “heightened scrutiny,” meaning the government must present an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for preserving them.  However, in this case, Ginsburg details how the provision at issue is in fact based on “two once habitual, but now untenable, assumptions [that] 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.”  She goes on to systematically dismantle the government’s alleged concerns about ensuring that children born abroad have sufficient ties to the U.S. and that children do not end up stateless and writes that these sorts of “overbroad generalizations about the way men and women are” are harmful because they both perpetuate stereotypes “forc[ing] women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver” and “disserve men who exercise responsibility for raising their children.”  In other words, the citizenship provisions at issue in this case serve no important governmental interest and are thus unconstitutional.

However, the Court’s ruling was but a hollow victory for Morales-Santana himself.  For while the Court agreed with his argument that the law was unconstitutionally discriminatory, it disagreed with the Second Circuit about the ultimate outcome for him personally.  While the lower court held that the shorter physical presence requirement for unwed mothers should be extended to Morales-Santana’s father, the Supreme Court went in the opposite direction and found that Congress likely would have preferred to preserve the longer physical presence requirement for most children and eliminate the exception for children of unwed mothers.  Ginsburg notes that “[g]oing forward, Congress may address the issue and settle on a uniform prescription that neither favors nor disadvantages any person on the basis of gender,” whether that consists of a physical presence requirement of five years, two years, or something else altogether; but “[i]n the interim, . . . [the law’s] now-five-year requirement should apply, prospectively, to children born to unwed U.S.-citizen mothers.”

Maslenjak v. U.S.

Divna Maslenjak and her family fled the former Yugoslavia and came to the U.S. as refugees during that country’s civil war.  Interviewed under oath, Maslenjak explained that her family could never be safe in Bosnia, in part, because her husband had fled to Serbia in order to evade service in the Bosnian Serb Army.  The family was granted refugee status, and years later, Maslenjak naturalized to become a U.S. citizen.  However, U.S. immigration officials later determined that Maslenjak had lied during her refugee interview – her husband had not, in fact, evaded service but rather had served as an officer in the Bosnian Serb Army and had participated in the notorious Srebrenica massacre.

Because the U.S. government believed that Maslenjak knew when applying for U.S. citizenship that she had given false testimony during her refugee interview years before, it charged her with the federal crime of knowingly procuring her naturalization “contrary to law.”  The District Court that first heard her case instructed the jury to convict Maslenjak if it determined that she had made false statements, even if those statements were not “material” and “did not influence the decision to approve [her] naturalization;” the jury subsequently found her guilty, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that verdict.

But in its June 22 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings before the lower courts.  In her opinion, Justice Elena Kagan confirms that “the Government must establish that an illegal act by the defendant played some role in her acquisition of citizenship.  When the illegal act is a false statement, that means demonstrating that the defendant lied about facts that would have mattered to an immigration official” in the adjudication of her naturalization application.  In other words, there must be a “causal relationship” between the illegal act (in this case, Maslenjak’s false statements) and the grant of U.S. citizenship.

Kagan gives an example to highlight the absurdity of the government’s contrary position, pointing out that “an applicant for citizenship [who] fills out the necessary paperwork in a government office with a knife tucked away in her handbag (but never mentioned or used)” has certainly violated laws prohibiting weapons in federal buildings, but has not obtained her citizenship “contrary to law” because “the violation of law and the acquisition of citizenship are . . . merely coincidental: The one has no causal relation to the other.”  As such, the Court determined, the jury should have been given instructions to only find Maslenjak guilty if her false statements “played a role in her naturalization.”  As Kagan writes, to hold otherwise would “open[] the door to a world of disquieting consequences,” in which a lie “would always provide a basis for rescinding citizenship,” even if told “out of embarrassment, fear, or a desire for privacy,” rather than an attempt to evade citizenship requirements.  Such a holding “would give prosecutors nearly limitless leverage and afford newly naturalized Americans precious little security.”

Of course, much like in the case of Morales-Santana, Maslenjak’s victory may be short-lived, since it seems highly likely that a properly instructed jury will still vote to convict her given the gravity of her prior false statements.  But in a broader sense, the Court’s decision is a welcome injection of common sense into naturalization law, so that truly minor misstatements that have no impact on naturalization decisions cannot later be the basis for stripping someone of his or her U.S. citizenship.


Cover image reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.

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