A federal appeals court has just ruled in a case arising out of Indiana that “alienage” is not the same thing as “national origin” or "race" when it comes to employment discrimination under Title VII. Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, but it is silent as to “alienage” – the status of being an alien. In this new decision, the court held that being fired for being married to an illegal alien does not violate Title VII since “alien” is not the same thing as race or national origin.
In this case, plaintiff, who was employed by a bank, was married to a Mexican national who entered the United States illegally. The couple had a joint bank account at the employer-bank, and the employer discovered that the husband was an illegal alien and became concerned that it may have been illegal for plaintiff to have a joint account with a known undocumented alien. Plaintiff was eventually fired for walking out of a meeting to discuss this matter, and sued the bank under Title VII claiming that she was fired because she was married to a Mexican citizen whose residence in the United States was unauthorized.
Initially, the court conceded that it had never before decided (and would wait for the appropriate case) “whether discrimination based on the race or national origin of a person’s spouse or partner falls within the protections of Title VII,” but noted that other federal appeals courts (in New York, for example) had decided that Title VII did, in fact, apply in those cases. Nonetheless, the court stated that this issue was immaterial to the decision.
What the court did hold was that “any discrimination that led to [plaintiff’s] firing was not based on [her husband’s] race or national origin, but rather on his status as an alien who lacked permission to be in the country. Because alienage is not a protected classification under Title VII,” the court ruled that plaintiff did not have a Title VII case.
The court cited an old Supreme Court case which held that the term “national origin” was limited to “the country from which you or your forebears came.” Therefore, held the appeals court, “national origin discrimination as defined in Title VII encompasses discrimination based on one’s ancestry, but not discrimination based on citizenship or immigration status.”