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Sessions v. Morales-Santana Post-Decision SCOTUScast

SCOTUScast 8-7-17 featuring Curt Levey
Featuring Curt Levey
August 07, 2017

On June 12, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Sessions v. Morales-Santana, formerly known as Lynch v. Morales-Santana.  The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides for derivative acquisition of U.S. citizenship from birth, by a child born abroad, when one parent is a U.S. citizen and the other is not.  At the relevant time here, the INA required the U.S.-citizen parent to have ten years’ physical presence in the United States prior to the child’s birth, at least five of which were after attaining age 14. Although the rule applies in full to unwed U.S.-citizen fathers, there is an exception for an unwed U.S.-citizen mother, whose citizenship can be transmitted to a child born abroad if she has lived continuously in the United States for just one year prior to the child’s birth. 

Morales-Santana, who was born in the Dominican Republic, asserted U.S. citizenship from birth based on the citizenship of his father--but his father had fallen 20 days short of satisfying the requirement of five years’ physical presence after attaining age 14.  In 2000, the government sought to remove Morales-Santana as a result of several criminal convictions, classifying him as alien rather than citizen because of his father’s failure to satisfy the full physical presence requirement.  The immigration judge rejected Morales-Santana’s citizenship claim and ordered him removed.  The Board of Immigration Appeals denied his subsequent motion to reopen proceedings on the claim that the INA’s gender-based rule violated the Fifth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause--but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, holding the differential treatment of unwed fathers and mothers unconstitutional and acknowledging Morales-Santana’s U.S. citizenship. 

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and by a vote of 8-0, affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the Second Circuit, and remanded the case. In an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that (1) the gender line Congress drew in the INA, creating an exception for an unwed U.S.-citizen mother but not for such a father, to the physical-presence requirement, violated the Fifth Amendment's equal protection clause as the Second Circuit had determined; but (2) the remedial course that Congress would most likely have chosen if apprised of this constitutional infirmity would have been not a broader application of the one-year exception but rather preservation of the five-year general rule; thus the Court cannot grant the relief Morales-Santana seeks.  Going forward it falls to Congress to select a uniform prescription that neither favors nor disadvantages any person on the basis of gender, but in the interim the five-year requirement applies prospectively to children of unwed U.S.-citizen mothers just as with such fathers.

Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part, in which Justice Alito joined. Justice Gorsuch took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. 

And now, to discuss the case, we have Curt Levey, who is President, Committee for Justice; Legal Affairs Fellow, Freedom Works.

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