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Notorious RBG Strikes Down Sexist Citizenship Law

But it’s more complicated than you might think

Image via Flickr/European University Institute

It’s difficult to believe this was a law in the first place, but consider this: Before Monday, children born outside of the country to unwed fathers could only gain U.S. citizenship if their dads resided in the state for at least five contiguous years—with at least two of those years happening after the father turned 14. Meanwhile, children born abroad to unwed mothers could become citizens as long as those mothers spent a full year in the states. Notice any discrepancies?


Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this arbitrarily sexist law, ruling the clear, gender-based differences violated the Constitution. According to NPR, Luis Ramón Morales-Santana brought the issue to national attention after his father failed to meet the residency requirement by less than three weeks. As a result, Morales-Santana, whose mother is from the Dominican Republic, lived in the United States as a permanent resident, not a legal citizen. Had his parent’s roles been reversed, he wouldn’t have had to worry about deportation, which the government sought following felony charges against Morales-Santana.

For two decades, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been fighting to reverse this instance of gender discrimination, and on Monday, she succeeded. In a 6-to-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the time it takes a child to get automatic U.S. citizenship would no longer vary depending on the sex of their unwed American parent.

Now Congress will have to decide whether to grant unwed fathers the advantages unwed American mothers previously had or to extend the residency requirements for mothers to make the law fair to both sexes. Until they reach a decision, the five-year minimum that applied to fathers will now apply to mothers as well. It’s unlikely to be the favored outcome for Ginsburg and other progressives, causing us to ask ourselves, is it worth posing new challenges on disadvantaged women in the name of gender equality? Especially when women face discriminatory treatment in so many other realms of the legal system?

At the end of the day, even though Morales-Santana won on the sexual discrimination front (from a technical standpoint anyway), he still won’t qualify for citizenship—at least not any time soon.

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