Remarks at the American Foreign Service Association Annual Award Ceremony

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC
June 9, 2015

As prepared

“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”

Those are the words of Benjamin Franklin, a man who would probably be pleased that a celebration of dissent happens every year in a room that bears his name. There are few here who would disagree with Franklin. Dissent is good, and it is necessary. But it is also difficult—particularly in a hierarchical institution like the State Department—which is why it merits an award. It takes real courage to speak up and go against the crowd. But to do this as a brand new officer in the Foreign Service, to stand up and say, I’m new here, but this doesn’t seem quite right—that is particularly commendable.

Today we are here to commend such an officer—Amelia Shaw. Amelia joined the Foreign Service just last year, when she was sent to Tijuana, Mexico for her first assignment. Almost immediately, her supervisors realized Amelia was an extraordinary officer. She was innovative—full of new ideas and projects, and the drive to see them through. She was a workhorse—capable of doing herself the work of three other officers. Perhaps most importantly, Amelia was compassionate. She is the only arrest officer at the consulate to ever receive flowers from an arrested American’s family.

Amelia also spent some time working the Tijuana passport line, where part of her job was to decide on citizenship applications for the children of Americans who were born outside the United States. Many parents came to her window. Often they were Americans who had children born outside of the United States. And they came to fulfill the bureaucratic mandate of doing the necessary paperwork so their children could also be American citizens.

Let me give you some context. People cross the U.S. border with Mexico all the time. For example, someone may have a job in the United States because it pays more, but live in Mexico because it’s cheaper. A parent might buy school supplies in Texas, but visit grandparents in Mexico—all within a 15 minute drive. So it wasn’t unusual for parents to come to her window. The rules in this situation work like this: If a man or married woman wants to transmit citizenship to a child, they need to show five years’ presence in the United States. Unmarried women, on the other hand, only need to show one year of presence in the United States. The difference is that unmarried women aren’t allowed to have left the United States at any point in that one year.

The intention of the law was to make it easier for unmarried mothers to give their children citizenship. But the consequence was that it’s actually a lot harder for mothers who live on the border, because they’re unable to travel back and forth in order to meet the requirement. So Amelia found that following the law forced her to deny citizenship to children of unwed mothers, simply because the rules for these women were different. And she thought the rules were wrong.

Amelia went to her bosses and asked what she could do. Some people encouraged her to move the issue forward, up the chain of command. Others weren’t so sure. After all, this issue is loaded with political sensitivity—and that’s not a phrase anyone with career dreams wants to be associated with. This didn’t matter to Amelia. And so, with professional persistence, she pushed through a torturous six-month process to clear a cable that asked for change. It asked that these American women not be penalized for maintaining family, cultural and economic ties to their ancestral home. It asked that Congress take action so that unwed women are not denied their right to give their children American citizenship.

These are questions we need to ask not just here, but around the world. There are far too many practical difficulties and legal impediments that make it more difficult for mothers to pass on their citizenship to children in many countries. So today, as we honor Amelia for her courage and her compassion, I also hope we inspire others. Because it will take many more Amelia Shaws to right the rules on citizenship for women and their children. And with that, it is now my privilege to present this award. Amelia, will you please come to the stage?

Amelia, for your initiative, your integrity and your intellectual courage in the context of constructive dissent, I present to you the W. Averell Harriman Award. Thank you for your courage and for your service.