Fiallo v. Bell, 430 U.S. 787 (1977)

Under U.S. immigration law, biological mothers who are citizens or lawful permanent residents may petition their nonmarital offspring to enter the country; similarly, nonmarital children may petition their biological mothers. Biological fathers do not enjoy the same privileges with respect to their nonmarital children. In Fiallo, three sets of fathers and unwed children challenged the law as unconstitutional. The Court ruled in the government’s favor, holding that Congress’s plenary power over the admission of noncitizens precluded the judiciary from second-guessing the legislature’s reasons for enacting the law. Citing precedent, the Court noted that immigration laws are closely connected with the political branches’ conduct of foreign affairs. Writing for the majority, Justice Powell opined that Congress enacts many laws that draw distinctions between U.S. citizen and noncitizen— based on age, for example—that, while they may seem arbitrary, are rational. Specifically, he surmised that Congress might have perceived family ties between the biological father and nonmarital child to be less close than those between mother and child. Likewise, Congress may have been concerned about the difficulty in proving paternity in many cases. Powell rejected the argument that the Court more closely scrutinize this law, finding that the effects on U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, the gender and illegitimacy discrimination alleged, and the absence of a national security concern did not warrant less deferential judicial review. Although criticized for its deference to Congress, Fiallo v. Bell has long been recognized as a key case to support the government’s plenary power over immigration.

VICTOR C. ROMERO

References and Further Reading

  • Satinoff, Debra L., Sex-Based Discrimination in U.S. Immigration Law: The High Court’s Lost Opportunity to Bridge the Gap Between What We Say and What We Do, American University Law Review 47 (1998): 1353–1392.

See also Aliens, Civil Liberties of; Citizenship; Equal Protection of Law (XIV); Illegitimacy and Immigration; Sex and Immigration

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