Lynch v. Morales-Santana

PETITIONER: Loretta E. Lynch, Attorney General
RESPONDENT: Luis Ramon Morales-Santana
LOCATION: Board of Immigration Appeals

DOCKET NO.: 15-1191
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

GRANTED: Jun 28, 2016
ARGUED: Nov 09, 2016

Edwin S. Kneedler - for petitioner
Stephen A. Broome - for respondent

Facts of the case

Luis Ramon Morales-Santana was born in 1962 in the Dominican Republic to a father who had become an American citizen in 1917 and a mother who was a citizen of the Dominican Republic. At the time, Morales-Santana’s parents were unmarried, and when they married in 1970, Morales-Santana was “legitimated” by his father’s citizenship, and he became a lawful permanent resident in 1975. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act in effect at the time of Morales-Santana’s birth, a child born abroad to an unwed citizen father and a non-citizen mother only had citizenship at birth if the citizen father was physically present in the United States or one of its possessions for a period totalling ten years at some point prior to the child’s birth, and at least five of those years had to be after the age of 14. Because Morales-Santana’s father was only physically present in Puerto Rico until 20 days before his 19th birthday, when he left to work in the Dominican Republic, he did not meet the requirements to transfer derivative citizenship to Morales-Santana upon his birth.

In 2000, Morales-Santana was placed in removal proceedings because he had been convicted of various felonies. He applied to have the removal withheld and argued that he had derivative citizenship from his father, but the immigration judge denied the application. Morales-Santana filed a motion to reopen and argued that the denial of derivative citizenship violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Although his father did not satisfy the requirements for unwed citizen fathers to transfer derivative citizenship, he did meet the less stringent requirements for unwed citizen mothers (which required physical presence in the United States or one of its possessions for at least a year at some point prior to the child’s birth), and the gender-based difference was a violation of Equal Protection. The Bureau of Immigration Appeals denied the motion to reopen, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and held that the gender-based difference in the physical presence requirement violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment.


  1. Did the statutory distinction between the physical presence requirements for transferral of derivative citizenship for unwed citizen mothers and unwed citizen fathers of foreign-born children violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment?
  2. Did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s decision that the gender-based difference was a violation of equal protection constitute a conferral of U.S. citizenship in the absence of statutory authority to do so?

Media for Lynch v. Morales-Santana

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 09, 2016 in Lynch v. Morales-Santana

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We will hear argument first this morning in Case No. 15-1191, Loretta Lynch, Attorney General, v. Morales-Santana. Mr. Kneedler.

Edwin S. Kneedler:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: The United States Constitution does not confer U.S. citizenship on anyone born outside the United States.

Rather, pursuant to its plenary authority under Article I of the Constitution, it is for Congress to determine which categories of such persons should be granted U.S. citizenship by statute. In doing so, Congress has always required that the persons involved have a demonstrated and sufficient connection to the United States, either in themselves or through their parents, to warrant the conferral of citizenship, because citizenship carries with it attendant duties and rights on the part of the individual, and important duties of protection and obligation on the part of the United States government. This case concerns the framework under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 as originally enacted for granting citizenship to persons outside the United States as of the date of their birth. Other provisions deal with the granting of citizenship later in life.

Those were open to Respondent or his father in this case, but were not taken advantage of. In particular, this case concerns the granting of citizenship to children born out of wedlock abroad, a situation in which this Court's -- this Court's cases made clear that mothers and fathers are not typically similarly situated with respect to their legal status concerning the child at the moment of birth. The general rules for citizenship at birth are set out in 8 U.S.C. 1401.

And I'm referring to the Act as originally enacted; it was revised in 1986.

If both parents were U.S. citizens, then a child born outside the United States would be a citizen of the United States as long as one of the parents had resided in the United States for any period of time.

Congress did not deem that to be a sufficient connection to the United States, given that both parents are citizens. On the other hand, if one parent was a U.S. citizen and one parent was an alien, Congress had a markedly different approach.

The U.S.-citizen parent had to -- had to have resided in the United States for ten years, five of which were after reaching the age of 14.

Congress evidently determined that because such a child would have competing claims of allegiance, that a greater residency was -- was required for the parent to establish the connection to the United States.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Is that an argument we heard much about in the Flores-Villar case?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

It was -- it was made at the oral argument in -- in Flores-Villar, and -- but we think it's also evident from the face of the statute. As this Court said in Nguyen with respect to another argument that the -- that the Court addressed there, it's important for the Court itself to look at the -- at the structure, text, and operation of the statute to see that the --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

I thought, in Villar, the -- the government spent most of its argument talking about the differential treatment primarily on the grounds of statelessness.

Edwin S. Kneedler:


Anthony M. Kennedy:

And -- and here your argument is -- the thrust of your argument is -- is somewhat a different need to ensure sufficient ties.

Edwin S. Kneedler:

What -- we're making both arguments.

And -- and we did -- we did argue in Flores-Villar that there should be a connection to the United States and that the statutory framework is set up that way. It's true that our emphasis was on statelessness, but we are now arguing -- and, again, we think it's -- it's entirely evident from the face of the statute -- that what -- what these provisions are after is connection to the United States.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Why aren't men and women who are parents similarly situated with respect to their affiliation, their attachment to U.S. values? I mean, there's no reason to think a man is less -- has less of a sense of U.S. belonging than a woman?

Edwin S. Kneedler:


And we're -- and we're making no such argument.

The -- the point is that where you have -- where you have -- at the -- at the moment of birth, the mother, as -- as this Court recognized in the -- in the Nguyen case and has recognized in cases like Lehr v. Robertson in the domestic context, the mother is the only legally recognized parent.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

There are many cases, especially generations back when this law was on the books, where the mother -- the birth certificate came sometime after the child was born, and both the father's name and the mother's name might be on it. So it is -- it is not -- the moment of birth doesn't necessarily tell you who is the mother if she -- if there is no birth certificate, and then the child, when they get the birth certificate, both names are on it.

Edwin S. Kneedler:

But I -- I think this Court's decision in Nguyen and the -- and the State statutes that we identify in a footnote in our brief are premised on -- on the proposition that the identity of the mother and her relationship to the child will be known by virtue of the birth alone, or at least will be known in the overwhelming majority of cases. In that situation there is only one parent. There is not a competing claim of citizenship to -- a competing claim of allegiance to another country through another parent. On the other hand, when the father legitimates, at that point you have two parents, and it -- in the situation where they are of different nationalities, then you are put in the situation where there are competing claims --

Elena Kagan:

But why do we look, Mr. Kneedler, to the moment of birth? Why shouldn't we look to the moment when citizenship is sought?

Edwin S. Kneedler:

Because this -- this statutory provision specifically deals with citizenship at birth, and the -- the statute that that's its caption, of 1409(a), with respect to the situation where the father legitimates, says the child shall be a citizen as of birth, and it's important to understand exactly what is operating here. At -- at the moment of birth, again, the child only has one -- one parent.

When the father legitimates, what Congress has done generously, one could say, but at least sensibly, is to say we will treat the couple as if they were married at the moment of birth.

They are giving retroactive application to the legitimation so that the -- so that the children -- the child is treated as the child of married parents at that point. If the -- if the legitimating father is a U.S. citizen, in that situation you would have two U.S.-citizen parents, and the very generous rule for U.S.-citizen parents would apply in that -- in that situation.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

But Nguyen -- Nguyen was more a matter of -- of proof, whereas this case, as Justice Ginsburg indicates, is a question of which -- does the child have sufficient ties to the country. It's quite a different -- quite a different proposition that the two address, it seems to me.

Edwin S. Kneedler:

Two -- two things about that. This Court's decision in Nguyen had two -- had identified two separate interests.

One was the proof of paternity, and -- but the other was recognizing the connection to the United States. The connection to the United States in a situation like this has two steps: What is the relationship of the child to the parent? And Nguyen was concerned about establishing that relationship, that in -- in some formal sense and also underlying it, a real sense of establishing that relationship. This case deals with the relationship of the parent to the United States.

Sonia Sotomayor:

The problem is with the exception that's been created for unwed-citizen mothers, the first prong, the interest of the connection to the United States doesn't exist, because the statute doesn't require any connection to the United States except U.S. citizenship.