Thursday, August 29, 2019

On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced a new policy saying some United States citizens whose children are born outside the country’s borders must apply for citizenship for their children before they turn 18. It will no longer be granted to them automatically at birth.

During the day following the announcement, the media issued contradictory reports, as did U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Services (USCIS). Some outlets claimed the new rules would apply to all children born to U.S. citizens overseas—a measure that would disproportionately affect active members of the U.S. military.

Since then, USCIS has issued statements saying that the change will actually affect very few people. Thursday, acting USCIS director Ken Cuccinelli issued the following statement: “This policy update does not affect who is born a U.S. citizen, period,” Cuccinelli said. “This only affects children who were born outside the United States and were not U.S. citizens. This does NOT impact birthright citizenship. This policy update does not deny citizenship to the children of U.S. government employees or members of the military born abroad.” He also told PBS in an interview, “We could have communicated this a lot better, but it is almost nothing.”

One official from the U.S. Department of Defense says this change in policy may affect about 100 people each year and the USCIS places it much lower, at 20 to 25.

What has actually changed, legally, is that, until now, children born to U.S. citizens who were serving in the military overseas or to U.S. government employees stationed overseas were considered “residing in the United States” for the purposes of citizenship, meaning they were treated as if they had been born on U.S. soil. Under the new model, this will no longer be the case. Serving members of the military and government employees will have the file paperwork and submit the same applications as civilian citizens who happen to live abroad.

Under U.S. law, anyone born on actual U.S. soil is an automatic citizen regardless of the parents’ status. This model, called “birthright citizenship,” has been in force since shortly after the U.S. Civil War and was implemented as a means of confirming that the recently freed slaves and their descendants were indeed citizens. Anyone born outside the U.S. who has at least one U.S. citizen parent is also eligible to be considered a citizen from birth, but the parents may have to file paperwork or provide proof of paternity depending on whether they have themselves lived in the United States and for how long, whether they and their children are living in the United States at the time, and, in the case of unmarried couples, whether the U.S. parent is the mother or the father.

For example, a U.S. couple who happens to have a child while visiting France but who return with that child to the United States face a less complicated path to confirming their child’s citizenship than a similar couple who decide to raise their child in France. If that French-born child wishes to pass citizenship on to his or her own children, he or she must first spend a certain number of years residing in the United States, with utility bills and other paperwork to prove it.

Until this new policy, children born on U.S. military bases and to U.S. government employees were not subject to this level of complication. The military bases were considered U.S. soil for this purpose. For example, former Senator John McCain was born on a U.S. military base in Panama and considered eligible to run for President.

The new, stricter rules also apply to the children of U.S. citizen parents who have never formally lived in the U.S., parents who became citizens after their children were born, recently naturalized parents, to children adopted while their parents were living outside the United States, and the children of legal U.S. permanent residents serving overseas while awaiting citizenship at the time of their children’s births or adoptions.

“Tonight, there’s someone likely on patrol in a war zone, or at an embassy, who is scared to death that their child is no longer a citizen, just because they were born overseas,” U.S. army veteran and director of VoteVets Will Godwin told NPR. “The stress and strain that this is causing military families is a cruelty that one would never expect from a Commander in Chief.”

Ur Jaddou, who served as a lawyer for USCIS under then-President Barack Obama and now heads the immigrant advocacy organization DHS Watch accused USCIS of attempting to minimize the problem: “If you go back in the last 2 1/2 years there is a systemic attempt to narrow the circumstances … to limit the number of people who can enter the country. And now achieve citizenship through their parents.”

“Military members already have enough to deal with, and the last thing that they should have to do when stationed overseas is go through hoops to ensure their children are U.S. citizens,” said Andy Blevins of the Modern Military Association of America.

The new policy is to take effect October 29.