Litigation

Racial and Gender Discrimination In U.S. Citizenship Law Leaves Thousands at Risk of Deportation

Damion Davis immigrated to the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident when he was 11 years old, over 20 years ago. When Damion was still a child, his father became a U.S. citizen through naturalization and the family believed that his citizenship automatically passed to Damion, too.

But the U.S. government is now trying to deport Damion, arguing that an outdated law called the Guyer Rule prevents U.S.-citizen fathers from passing on their American citizenship to foreign-born, non-marital children.

The racist Guyer Rule originates from an 1864 Maryland court decision, Guyer v. Smith, ruling that two sons born overseas of a white U.S.-citizen father and a Black mother from St. Barthélemy could not be U.S. citizens because their parents weren’t married—at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in most U.S. states. The Guyer Rule was subsequently incorporated into federal nationality laws.

But the Guyer rule isn’t just a remnant of racist ideology. It also enshrines in law a stereotype about women that perpetuates gender discrimination. In treating marriage as a prerequisite for fathers to pass on their citizenship, but not for mothers, lawmakers relied on the outdated belief that women naturally have closer bonds with children than men do.

Why is this a key case?

The Guyer Rule perpetuates false, harmful stereotypes that disproportionately harm Black communities by preventing fathers from passing citizenship to their children. Recognizing this, the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 changed the law to allow custodial U.S.-citizen fathers to automatically transmit their citizenship to their nonmarital children. But because the law was not made retroactive for children who had already turned 18 on February 27, 2001, thousands of children of U.S. citizens are still vulnerable to deportation. This attack on family unity is especially harmful to Black families, who already struggle with the loss of 1.5 million Black men from their communities due to mass incarceration. CDC data shows that Black fathers who can and do live with their children are more likely than their white and Hispanic counterparts to feed, eat with, bathe, diaper, dress, play with, and read to their children on a daily basis. But unjust structural obstacles like the Guyer Rule prevent Black fathers from exercising this care.


How is RFK Human Rights supporting?

RFK Human Rights represents Damion Davis in removal proceedings, arguing that he derived citizenship from his father and therefore cannot be deported. In 2021, the organization filed a Petition for Review with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Mr. Davis’s order of removal and to strike the Guyer Rule from law as unconstitutional.


What is the status of the case?

In September 2023, Mr. Davis’s legal team argued his case before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. A decision is pending.

Name of the case (as it appears in the respective legal mechanism)

Davis v. Attorney General, No. 21-2235 (3d Cir. filed June 22, 2021)


Month/Year of filing

June 2021


Legal mechanism in which the case is being litigated

U.S. Federal Court of Appeals, Third Circuit Court of Appeals


Rights and legal instruments alleged violated (or found to have been violated)

Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution


Procedural stage

Pending


Counsel

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York