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April 2015


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.

Transmitting Citizenship


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.

Speaking Out

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.

Vera Zdravkova