What Do New Citizenship Rules For Kids Of U.S. Military, Workers Abroad Mean?

Aug 29, 2019
Originally published on August 29, 2019 7:14 pm

The children of some U.S. military members and government workers overseas will have a harder time getting citizenship under a Trump administration policy announced Wednesday.

The changes will affect a relatively small number of people. But the announcement touched off widespread confusion and outrage — with immigrant and veterans' advocates questioning why the administration would change the rules for people who are serving their country.

The administration scrambled to clarify that the vast majority of children born to U.S. citizens while they are are serving or working abroad will still get citizenship automatically.

For certain other groups, under the new policy, there will be a more complicated application process. In some cases, parents will have to apply for a visa to legally bring their child to the U.S. and establish residency before applying for citizenship.

Those groups include:

  • parents who adopted children while serving abroad
  • parents who became U.S. citizens after their children were born
  • parents who are U.S. citizens but have never lived here
  • recently naturalized citizens who have not met the U.S. residency requirements to transmit citizenship to their children automatically 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of legal immigration, has not said how many families would be affected by the new policy. Immigration experts believe it's likely a few hundred people per year — a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members and government employees stationed overseas.

The change left some in the military community confused and angry.

"That is an abominable and anti-patriotic position for the Trump Administration to take," said Will Goodwin, a U.S. Army veteran and director of government relations for VoteVets, a liberal advocacy group for veterans.

"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," Godwin said in a statement. "The stress and strain that this is causing military families is a cruelty that one would never expect from a Commander in Chief."

The complicated text of the policy announcement itself — coupled with unclear and contradictory guidance from USCIS — contributed to widespread confusion. Some media outlets erroneously reported that the children of all U.S. service members or federal employees who are born overseas would no longer become citizens automatically.

That prompted a response from Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of USCIS.

"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 US government employees or members of the military born abroad."

Immigrant advocates acknowledge the impact of the change has been widely overstated. Nonetheless, they accuse Cuccinelli of downplaying the serious consequences of the policy change for the service members and government employees who are affected.

"Why are we doing this? What problem are we trying to solve, except create concern and fear in this population of people?" asked Ur Jaddou, who served as chief counsel at USCIS during the Obama administration and now heads DHS Watch, an immigrant advocacy organization.

USCIS says it issued the new guidance because its previous policy conflicted with guidance issued by the State Department. But Jaddou is not convinced.

"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," she said.

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The children of some U.S. military members and government workers overseas will have a harder time getting citizenship under a new Trump administration policy. The changes will affect a relatively small number of people. But the announcement has touched off widespread confusion, even outrage, including from veterans groups, who say this hurts people who are serving their country.

NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He is here with us now. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Explain this new policy to the extent that we understand it because there was all kinds of confusion when it dropped yesterday.

ROSE: For sure and it's understandable because this one is complicated. But let's start with what it doesn't do. It doesn't take away automatic citizenship from the children of most U.S. citizens overseas. So the vast majority of children born abroad to citizens in the military or working for the government will still get citizenship. Let me give you a real-life example. If this had been in place when John McCain was born on a naval base in the Panama Canal Zone, he would still have gotten citizenship automatically.

KELLY: All right. Who knew?

ROSE: But there are some groups for whom that will no longer be the case. And they include parents who adopted children while serving abroad and immigrants who are recently naturalized citizens but have not yet met the residency requirements for U.S. residency in order to transmit citizenship onto their children automatically. Those parents can still get citizenship for their kids, but it won't be automatic. They will have to go through a more lengthy application process.

KELLY: All right. To the pushback already emerging against this rule, I described outrage. Who is outraged and why?

ROSE: Well, there are a couple of reasons for this. I mean, one, we're talking about the active-duty military, and anything that negatively impacts service members is going to touch a nerve. This is also about immigration and citizenship - also touchy subjects.

And you know, another reason is there was a lot of confusion, as you noted. I mean, at first when this rule came out, many people thought that President Trump was ending automatic citizenship for all babies born on U.S. military bases. That storyline was shared on social media quite a lot last night. And it seems plausible if you remember that President Trump has been talking about taking away birthright citizenship so that the children of immigrants who are here in the U.S. illegally are not automatic citizens. And people wondered if this was like a first step toward that goal.

Administration officials tried to explain that is not what is happening here. But in fact, they had helped create this confusion in the first place by putting out guidance about the policy that was itself pretty confusing and sometimes contradictory.

KELLY: Well, why does the administration think this is a good idea?

ROSE: Well, this policy came from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That's the agency in charge of legal immigration. Officials there insist this is just a technical change. It's about aligning USCIS policy with State Department guidance. The acting director of USCIS, Ken Cuccinelli, tried to do some damage control and put out a statement and tweeted trying to downplay the impact of this change before it takes effect in October.

KELLY: And we said this will affect a relatively small number of people. How small? How many?

ROSE: We don't know exactly how many. But immigration experts tell me it's a hundred - maybe hundreds of kids per year. But immigrant advocates say that this policy is still a big deal if you're one of those families to. Ur Jaddou was the chief counsel at USCIS under President Obama. She is now the director of DHS Watch, an immigrant advocacy group. Here's what she told me.

UR JADDOU: Why? Why are we doing this? What problem are we trying to solve except create concern and fear in this population of people who are abroad?

ROSE: Jaddou thinks this is just another in a long line of Trump administration policies aimed at immigrants, trying to limit who can come into the country and who can become a citizen.

KELLY: Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Joel Rose. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.