Trump administration tightens policy on children born overseas

Polly Mosendz and Michaela Ross

The Trump administration said a small number of U.S. military personnel and government employees serving overseas will no longer be automatically granted citizenship for children they’ve adopted while abroad.

A “policy manual update” issued Wednesday by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also would affect the children born to non-citizen government employees and military members before they are naturalized. The agency estimates the change would affect only 20 to 25 individuals annually, according to an official who briefed reporters.

The new policy means adoptions and paperwork will be more complicated for some members of the military and government employees.

In this Aug. 12, 2019 file photo Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli, speaks during a briefing at the White House in Washington. The Trump administration has unveiled new rules that will make it harder for children of some immigrants serving in the military to obtain citizenship. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released updated guidance Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019, that appears to mostly affect non-citizen service members.

Previously, these families were considered to be residing in the U.S. even while stationed overseas, for immigration purposes. They still will be able to apply for citizenship for their children before they turn 18.

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who has pushed a hard line on immigration with backing from President Donald Trump, said the change “only affects children who were born outside the United States and were not U.S. citizens.”

The agency said the policy was changed to conform more closely with the Immigration and Nationality Act. It “rescinds previously established USCIS policy, which stated that certain children who were living outside the United States were considered residing in’ the United States,” according to documents released by the agency.

Experts said that while it will affect relatively few people, they would have to go through an expensive and lengthy application process.

“The harder it is to become a U.S. citizens, the fewer people who get to participate in civic life,” Csar Cuauhtmoc Garca Hernndez, a law professor at the University of Denver, said in an interview.

Garca Hernndez said that throughout American history, the residency requirements to pass on citizenship to children have shifted, but previous administrations had taken a broader interpretation of what met those standards.

“We are dealing with a small number of people who are particularly sympathetic because they’re people who have decided to join the U.S. military,” he said. “It’s people who have gone out of their way to say we’re willing to serve the U.S. government.”

San Diego immigration attorney Kathrin Mautino called the USCIS policy change “significant,” adding it would make it more difficult for the parents of some children born abroad to prove those children are U.S. citizens and, later when they’re grown up, for the children themselves to prove they automatically became U.S. citizens in the past.

Mautino called U.S. citizenship “a precious right” and warned that the increased paperwork requirements and processes, which all must be completed before a child turns 18, increases the chance that “some children will lose out completely.”

The policy change reflects the larger push from the Trump administration to make legal immigration to the U.S. more difficult, Martin Lester, vice chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Military Assistance Program Committee, said in an interview.

“They’re harming the interests of U.S. service members and U.S. government employees who are overseas doing difficult jobs in difficult places because we sent them there,” Lester said. “I can’t for the life of me figure out why our government would want to turn around and change a policy to make it harder on them and harder on their children.”

The initial release of the policy caused widespread confusion among immigration advocacy groups, lawyers and the media. Cuccinelli’s statement was released several hours after the policy memo in order to clarify inaccurate interpretations.

“It’s important to have clear cut guidance that is easy to understand, and this is anything but easy to understand,” Garca Hernndez said.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to limit immigration, praised the policy; however, the military community did not take it as kindly. The policy is a “gratuitous slap at military members,” said Charles Blanchard, the former general counsel for the Air Force and Army. The Modern Military Association of America called the change “preposterous” and called on Congress to take action.

With assistance from Andrew Harris.