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the Foreign Service journal


April 2015


ladies” during the drafting of the Declara-

tion of Independence and grant women

at least some political rights separate

from their husbands.

To this she got a dismissive reply: “I

cannot but laugh…we know better than

to repeal our masculine systems.” The

founding fathers just couldn’t imag-

ine the political status of women as

“citizens”—they could not vote, own

property, keep their wages or even have

custody of their children.

Throughout the 19th century, a wom-

an’s citizenship status was murky territory,

usually tied to that of her husband. As

of 1907, American women routinely lost

their U.S. citizenship when they married

a foreign national. It was not until 1934

that Congress allowed married women to

retain their citizenship, and granted single

mothers the right to transmit U.S. citizen-

ship under the rationale that she “stands

in place of the father.”

But what to do about those children

born abroad to unmarried U.S.-citizen

mothers who did not fulfill the physical

presence requirement? Those children

were exposed to a significant risk of

statelessness, since not all countries

grant citizenship as a birth right under

the principle of jus soli (literally, “right

of the soil”).

So in 1952 Congress established the

one-year continuous presence require-

ment for out-of-wedlock births in an

effort to help single mothers—and for

the vast majority of women in the world,

it does. It is generally easier to prove one

year of presence in the U.S. than five.

Not so for our citizen-moms along

the border.


A Story of Flux

The U.S.-Mexico border is less a line

than a wide swath of territory where

movement is fluid. American citizens

live on both sides and cross frequently,

for a variety of reasons. Salaries north of

the border are higher, but apartments in

Tijuana are cheaper. The United States

has bigger Costcos—not to mention

Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. But

Mexico has cheap dentists. Some people

cross the border just to get a better price

on gas.

And then there is the question of

family. Extended families are frequently

dispersed along both sides of the border,

so visiting aunts and cousins is, for many

area residents, a quotidian affair. Many

American women of Mexican heritage

choose to have their babies south of the

border not only because it costs a lot less,

but also because it’s closer to grandma.

So when an unmarried American-cit-

izen mom comes up to the window for

a CRBA, I brace for the worst. Because if

she can’t convince me that she did not

set foot outside of the United States for

12 straight months, the likelihood is that

I am going to deny her. This is what the

law requires.

Proof of such presence, or in consular

speak “a preponderance of evidence,”

might be that mom moved to Seattle for

all of middle school, or that she grew up

in Los Angeles and her extended Mexi-

can family was living in the southern

state of Chiapas. In these cases, one can

argue mom is less likely to have broken

the one-year requirement because visit-

ing family requires more than a 15-min-

ute drive across the border.

But for most applicants along the

U.S.-Mexico border this is unrealistic.

They live on


sides of the line, cross-

ing back and forth frequently, without

giving a second thought to how it might

affect their progeny. These are the

women who are in for a nasty shock at

my window.