A U.S. District Judge in Georgia issued a ruling on August 27 that a married male couple’s daughter, conceived through donor insemination from a donated egg with an English woman serving as gestational surrogate, should be deemed a natural-born U.S. citizen and entitled to a passport over the objections of the State Department. The complication in this case is that the spouse whose sperm was used was not a U.S. citizen at the time, although he since has become one through the marriage to his native-born U.S. citizen husband.
If this sounds familiar, it is because the case of Mize v. Pompeo, 2020 WL 5059253, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156121 (N.D. Ga., Aug. 27, 2020), presents issues similar to those in Kiviti v. Pompeo, 2020 WL 3268221 (D. Md. June 17, 2020), decided a few months earlier by a federal court in Maryland, which also ordered the State Department to recognize the birthright citizenship of the child of a married gay couple.
This is a recurring problem encountered by married gay male couples who use a foreign surrogate to have their child overseas.
Under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, all persons born in the United States are citizens at birth, regardless of the nationality or citizenship status of their parents. By statute and court decision, the only people born in the U.S. who are not citizens at birth are children born to foreign diplomats stationed in the U.S. or temporary tourist or business visitors. The citizenship of children born overseas to U.S. citizens is determined by a statute, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
Under the INA, there is a crucial distinction depending whether the child’s U.S. citizen parents are married to each other when the child is born. One provision concerns the overseas children of married U.S. citizens, and a different provision applies if the children are born “out of wedlock.” As interpreted by the State Department, if the parents are married, the child is a birthright citizen so long as it is biologically related to one of them. If the parents are not married, at least one them who is biologically related to the child must be a United States citizen who has resided in the U.S. for at least five years.
In this case, James Mize, a native-born U.S. citizen, and Jonathan Gregg, a British native, met when Gregg moved to the U.S. in 2014 and they subsequently married. They then decided to have a child together, and a British woman who was a friend of the couple agreed to be the gestational surrogate. They obtained an anonymously donated egg which was fertilized in vitro with Jonathan’s sperm, implanted in their friend, who bore the child in England in 2018. The local authorities issued a birth certificate recognizing the two men as the parents of the child, identified in court papers as SM-G. The men had moved to England before the child was conceived. After she was born, they applied for a U.S. passport and citizenship declaration, but the State Department refused to provide it. The Department treated the child as if she was born out of wedlock, since her biological parents were not married to each other, and found that her biological father, Gregg, had not resided in the United States as a citizen long enough to confer birthright citizenship on her. Mize is not her biological parent, so the Department was unwilling to recognize birthright citizenship based on Mize’s natural-born citizenship status.
These rules have proved to be a recurring issue for gay male couples who go out of the country to have children through surrogacy, as it has generated several lawsuits, and the State Department, while losing individual cases, has not modified its interpretation of the statute. Unsurprisingly, the Trump Administration has filed appeals of prior cases and there is no definite appellate interpretation yet.
Mize and Gregg sued the State Department, claiming that the denial of the passport and citizenship declaration for their daughter violated their 5th Amendment constitutional rights, violated the INA, and also violated the Administrative Procedure Act.
Meanwhile, however, because of the citizenship status eventually acquired by Gregg through his marriage to Mize, their daughter ultimately acquired naturalized citizenship as the minor child of a naturalized citizen while this case was pending, and is living with the couple in Georgia. In addition to refusing to change its interpretation of the INA and moving for summary judgment as to that, the State Department also suggested that the case should be dismissed as moot, since the child now has a U.S. passport as a “naturalized” citizen by derivation from her biological father.
U.S. District Judge Michael Brown rejected the mootness argument before turning to the merits of the case in his August 27 opinion. He said that the dignitary harm suffered by the men in their marriage being deemed irrelevant for the purpose of their daughter’s citizenship status at birth kept this case from being moot.
On the merits, Judge Brown pointed out that as a matter of constitutional law, under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 and Pavan v. Smith in 2017, same-sex marriages are supposed to be treated the same as opposite sex marriages for all purposes of law. They are entitled to the same rights and have the same responsibilities. However, if the INA can be interpreted to treat their daughter as a child “of the marriage,” then the provision concerning the children of married U.S. citizens would apply and there would be no requirement that the child be biologically related to both parents to be a birthright citizen, and the court would not have to address the constitutional issues.
Judge Brown found that the INA does not define what a child “of the marriage” is, leaving an ambiguity because the statutory language can be interpreted in more than one way. If the language is interpreted as the State Department insists, he found that would raise constitutional issues under the 5th Amendment. Federal courts apply a doctrine of “constitutional avoidance.” They avoid having to decide questions about the constitutionality of a statute or its interpretation by the government if there is a reasonable way to interpret the statutory language to make the constitutional issues go away.
In this case, Judge Brown, in line with several prior district court decisions, concluded that such an interpretation is possible. The Mize-Gregg marriage is valid and must be recognized by the State Department, and the process by which Mize and Gregg decided to have a child through gestational surrogacy and carried out their plan supports the argument that SM-G is a child “of” their marriage in a practical sense. Thus, the court concluded, she was not born “out of wedlock,” and the requirement that she be biologically related to as U.S. parent with sufficient duration of residency under the “out of wedlock” provision would not apply.
Judge Brown granted summary judgment to Mize and Gregg as a matter of statutory interpretation, rendering it unnecessary to decide the constitutional questions, and he ordered the State Department to issue the documents for which the men had applied. He dismissed the Administrative Procedure Act claim as moot.
The State Department could decide to appeal this ruling, which would be consistent with the Trump Administration’s general tendency to fall in line with efforts by Christian conservatives to chip away at the legal status of same-sex marriages. Unsurprisingly, the Department filed an appeal of the Kiviti decision in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on August 14, but in the normal course of things that appeal will probably not be argued for several months and a decision would be unlikely until sometime next year at the earliest. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration could consistently file an appeal in this case to “protect” its position about how to interpret the statute.
If Joe Biden is elected president, it is possible that the State Department would decide to protect the rights of same-sex couples and their children by revising the Foreign Affairs Manual to adopt an interpretation consistent with the court’s rulings for the guidance of U.S. consulates and embassies that receive these sorts of applications when children are born to U.S. citizens overseas.
Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal are representing Mize and Gregg, as they are also representing the plaintiffs in the Kiviti case.