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Gender Discrimination in US Citizenship Law? Court Divided

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on June 15, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court issued a divided opinion this week in the case of Ruben Flores-Villar, a would-be citizen who was challenging, on the basis of gender discrimination, citizenship law in the United States.

Born to a Mexican mother and an American father, Flores-Villar was arguing that, citizenship laws that more easily grant citizenship to children of American mothers violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

At the time Ruben Flores-Villar was born, CNN reports that a father could only pass on citizenship if he lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years prior to his child's birth, 5 of which must occur after he was 14.

Flores-Villar's father was 16 when he was born, which means he was not granted citizenship at birth.

Deported after being convicted of smuggling drugs, Ruben Flores-Villar challenged this rule, honing in on the fact that an American mother can transmit citizenship at birth after only having lived in the U.S. for one year.

He argued that this drastic difference amounts to impermissible gender discrimination.

Citizenship requirements have been previously challenged on this very basis. In Nguyen v. INS, the Supreme Court denied a gender discrimination claim, stating that Congress' decision to enact different citizenship rules for children of American mothers and fathers was supported by an important government interest.

It's unclear whether the Court wished to extend this statement to the case at hand, as it issued a one-sentence opinion. Justice Kagan recused herself, and a 4-4 decision automatically leads to the affirmation of the lower court's ruling.

What this means is that, not only is Ruben Flores-Villar unable to become a U.S. citizen, the Court has provided no binding statements on the intersection of gender discrimination, citizenship law, and fatherhood.

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