Trump Goes After Military Families Again

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a controversial policy alert yesterday that will revoke a previous rule which allowed automatic citizenship for children of U.S. service members born overseas. Starting October 29, 2019, military children can no longer automatically claim U.S. citizenship, and according to the new policy, parents will be forced to complete a citizenship application that must be processed before their child's 18th birthday to ensure citizenship. Unlike the former policy that granted military children automatic citizenship under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), this application is subject to review and can be revoked for selective reasons.

(photo credit John Moore/Getty Images)

Although Trump administration officials argue that the overall impact of this regulation change is minimal and that it does not deny citizenship to military children born abroad per se, the reality of this shift is that more Americans who should have unequivocal citizenship rights are made vulnerable to governmental discretion over their rights. Considering Trump’s ongoing attempts to eradicate birthright citizenship altogether, this is another alarming attempt to roll back protections and target minorities under the cover of bureaucratic discretion.

This new policy change is not surprising given Trump’s consistent moves to limit citizenship since taking office. In October 2018, Trump claimed that he would end “birthright citizenship” through an executive order, despite the fact that doing so would be unconstitutional. Last week, Trump told the press that his administration was considering ending citizenship rights for U.S.-born children of non-citizens and people who immigrated to the United States illegally by limiting the 14th Amendment.

On the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June, Trump used Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deport former service members in violation of its own agency screening process. An unknown number of veterans were deported for crimes ranging from assault to relatively minor offenses such as petty theft, and ICE could not definitively say how many people had been removed overall. Considering that those minority veterans were removed without the appropriate administrative oversight, it’s not a stretch to think that Trump will utilize the same retaliatory techniques for minorities born to service members overseas.

Under the Trump Administration, immigrant enlistees to the U.S. military have been discharged for being the children of foreign parents or for having family ties to their native government or military. These recruits were seen as a valuable asset under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, which enlisted more than 10,400 foreign troops in the past decade, with the promise of fast-tracked naturalization that would take weeks. This was a program that was established based on the need to harness strategic language and medical abilities that were previously in short supply among U.S.-born troops, in an attempt to utilize the skills of immigrants to assist in national security. Trump’s decision to eject these enlistees not only chips away at a valuable and necessary program, but it also raises serious questions about the Pentagon’s screening process and why it selectively weeded out the very the recruits that the government previously claimed to need.

The fallout from this latest decision might be minor compared to Trump’s other severe restrictions placed on those who serve, such as the total ban on transgender Americans or kicking out immigrants who serve — but it’s not. This new policy will create confusion at the very least, and people overseas will have to scramble to come home to give birth. This means that women will be disproportionally impacted. The new rule will now create scheduling problems for servicewomen who will feel they need to travel home for delivery or for spouses who might opt out of living with their partners abroad, thus creating more family separation. The first glance ramifications of this policy are so substantial that the practical realities of complications stemming from the rule will continue to play out for the next 18 years and beyond.

It’s also important to consider the motivation behind continued citizenship encroachments — Trump is rallying his base for 2020 and decreasing citizenship rights is an issue that particularly appeals to his base. Given the shaky state of the economy and Trump’s reliance on that issue to propel his candidacy thus far, we can expect to see him continue to strike down more protections like these to fuel his base.

When placed in context with the overall plan to eradicate citizenship rights, this additional move by the Trump Administration is just another step to pick and chose who maintains rights based on a selection process skewed by race. By revoking the previous policy that establishes birthright citizenship, Trump is creating another category of second-class citizens that the government can control and leverage — and he’s doing it to his own military.

Update: Due to increased confusion over this policy change, officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services were forced to clarify the new regulations this afternoon. According to the latest statements from the agency, if a child is born overseas to a U.S. citizen who is a service member or government employee, then that child will be an American citizen. C.I.S. now claims that the new policy will only affect green cardholders who have a child while on duty overseas or adopt a child who is not a citizen or are the stepparent of a foreign-born child.

The initial 11-page memo the agency put out concerning the policy change implied American citizens were among those whose children would no longer be automatically granted citizenship if born abroad. Now there seems to be a complete turn-around in the form of a new “clarification” that appeared after a barrage of confusion from advocates, lawyers, journalists and government employees. The outcry even caused agency’s acting director, Ken Cuccinelli, to respond by playing down the changes in a Twitter statement, saying the update doesn’t deny citizenship to children of government and military members. Based on the lack of transparency with the Trump Administration, we will all have to stay tuned to see what the true ramifications from this policy really are.

Second Update: The confusion over the new C.I.S. policy continues as Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) formally addresses her “strong opposition to the harmful policy alert” with a formal letter to Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli on August 29th. Despite the attempt by C.I.S. to clarify the new regulation, many are still unsure about the true intention of the new rule and are calling for policy alert (PA-2019-05) to be formally rescinded. Some of the concerns stated by Duckworth include the excessive application costs ($1,170), the inherently subjective nature of the approval process and the underlying offensive nature of the law itself.

C.I.S. attempts to minimize the impact of the new rule by claiming it will only affect a small portion of active service members has not been successful and neither have the attempts to explain the law thoroughly. Given the fact that the initial memo that was released days ago did indicate that this rule would apply to all foreign service members, not just those with green cards, the veracity of the recent statements from Cuccinelli and C.I.S. spokespeople remains in question. It is also not clear if the agency has actually changed the policy after releasing it to assuage public dissatisfaction over the changes or if the first memo was just poorly conveyed.

I will keep you posted as this story continues to evolve.

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Amee Vanderpool writes the “Shero” Newsletter and is an attorney, contributor to Playboy Magazine, analyst for BBC radio and Director of The Inanna Project. She can be reached at avanderpool@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.