the foreign Service journal
Citizenship and Unwed Border Moms:
The Misfortune of Geography
By Ame l i a Shaw
love working on the passports line
in Tijuana. It’s a job that for the most
part makes people happy. I get to say
“Señor, your passport is approved,”
which generally elicits a smile— some-
times even a fist pump.
I also get to “make Americans”—a
colloquialism for adjudicating citizenship
for applicants for a Consular Report of
Birth Abroad. All those American moms
and dads who bring in little Lupita and
Miguelito—their kids are so cute at the
window, with their shy “buenos días” or
their hair tied in bows.
But there is a very difficult aspect of
my job that comes up probably once or
twice a week. It’s adjudicating the CRBA
cases of unwed American-citizen mothers
who live along the U.S.-Mexico border.
More than once women have left
my window in tears, prompting me to
ponder the question of equal protection
under the law.
Here is a little background for you
non-consular folks. For a parent to trans-
mit citizenship to a child born overseas,
the applying parent needs to prove three
things: his or her U.S. citizenship, a bio-
Amelia Shaw joined the
Foreign Service (public di-
plomacy cone) in 2014 after
careers in journalism and
public health. She is cur-
rently doing consular work
in Tijuana, her first post.
logical relationship to the child, and that
he or she has spent sufficient time in the
United States to satisfy the physical pres-
ence requirements of the Immigration
and Nationality Act.
“Physical presence” was written into
the INA as a way to ensure that American-
citizen parents had “absorbed American
culture and values” enough to pass them
on to their progeny (see Foreign Affairs
Manual 1133.3). It is also a way to prevent
an endless chain of hereditary American
descendants—you don’t necessarily get to
be an American just because your father or
your grandfather was.
But what “physical presence” means
depends on who is applying. Men and
married women need to show five years
of accumulated presence, with two years
after the age of 14. Unmarried women need
one year of continuous presence, meaning
unbroken time—no trips outside the U.S.
And herein lies the rub: a law that
was designed to help unwed moth-
ers transmit citizenship has created an
unintended gender inequality, at least for
women along our land borders.
The Bias of History
Throughout our nation’s history,
marriage has been a key in determin-
ing a woman’s nationality. In early 1776,
Abigail Adams famously petitioned her
husband John Adams to “remember the
For families who live in the United States, a CRBA denial can split the home because the
Mexican-born child cannot enter the United States.