Sessions v. Morales-Santana

Facts of the Case

The father of respondent moved to the Dominican Republic 20 days short of his 19th birthday, and therefore failed to satisfy §1401(a)(7)s requirement of five years’ physical presence after age 14. There, he lived with the Dominican woman who gave birth to respondent. Respondent, who lived in the United States since he was 13, asserted U.S. citizenship at birth based on the U.S. citizenship of his biological father. In 2000, the Government sought to remove respondent based on several criminal convictions, and ranked him as alien because, at his time of birth, his father did not satisfy the requirement of five years’ physical presence after age 14. An immigration judge rejected respondent’s citizenship claim and ordered his removal. Respondent later moved to reopen the proceedings and asserted that the Government’s refusal to recognize that he derived citizenship from his U.S.-citizen father violated the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. The Board of Immigration Appeals denied the motion, but the Second Circuit reversed. The court held unconstitutional the differential treatment of unwed mothers and fathers. To cure that infirmity, the appellate court held that respondent derived citizenship through his father, just as he would if his mother were the U.S. citizen. The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

Question

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?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?

CONCLUSION

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 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and it is up to Congress, rather than the courts, to create a uniform solution that does not disadvantage any person on the basis of gender. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion for the 6-2 majority. The Court held that laws granting or denying benefits on the basis of the gender of the qualifying parent were subject to heightened review under the Court’s equal protection jurisprudence. To be valid, such legislation must serve an important government objective and the means of accomplishing it must be substantially related to that objective. In this case, the Immigration and Nationality Act did not meet that burden. Instead, the gender differential was based solely on the now-untenable assumption that an unwed mother is the “natural and sole guardian of non-marital children.” Although the petitioner argued that the physical presence requirements served the important interest of ensuring a connection between the foreign-born non-marital child and the United States, a gender-based description does not accomplish that goal. Because the gender-based difference was due to overbroad, disfavored generalizations about gender, it did not serve an important government objective and therefore failed to pass the heightened scrutiny test. Despite the fact that the distinction between the physical presence requirements violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment, the judicial branch cannot resolve the problem by determining which requirement controls. Congress must instead address that issue in legislation.Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment in part in which he argued that only Congress could remedy the alleged equal protection violation in this case. Because the Court could not grant the relief that Morales-Santana requested, the Court should not reach a decision on whether the requirements were constitutional. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. joined in the opinion concurring in the judgment in part.Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the discussion or decision of this case.

Case Information

  • Citation: 582 US _ (2017)
  • Granted: Jun 28, 2016
  • Argued: Nov 9, 2016
  • Decided Jun 12, 2017