National Security

Pentagon caught off guard by new citizenship policy, but promises to help impacted troops

The Pentagon said Thursday it would help service members affected by a new Trump administration policy that makes it more difficult for troops stationed overseas to get citizenship for their children.

Late Wednesday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a new policy that limits which children born to military and U.S. government personnel stationed overseas will automatically qualify for U.S. citizenship.

Previously, children born to military personnel while they were overseas received U.S. residency through the orders their parents were deployed on. That is no longer allowed through the new policy, to varying effects for military families, depending on the citizenship status of both parents.

The policy announcement created immediate confusion among service members, and the Pentagon seemed caught off guard by the new policy on Thursday. At a media availability at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark Esper declined to answer questions on the issue and two defense officials said they had not been included in any deliberations on it.

“We were not part of the decision process on this,” one of the officials said.

However in an official statement issued after the USCIS policy was released, the Pentagon said it had been “working closely” with USCIS on the change, and was “committed to ensuring affected families are provided the appropriate information, resources, and support during this transition.”

USCIS appears to have alerted DoD to the policy change June 25, in a document obtained by McClatchy that outlined the categories of service members who would be impacted by the policy change, wording that seems to have survived in the final policy:

  • Children born to non-citizens and adopted by a citizen government employee or service member
  • Non-citizen parents who naturalized after the child’s birth
  • Two U.S. citizen government employees or U.S. service members who did not meet the requirements to transmit citizenship to their child, or one non-citizen parent and one citizen parent who does not meet the requirements.
USCIS draft policy.jpg
A draft USCIS document obtained by McClatchy shows that the potential pool of impacted service members could be larger than the 25 to 100 per year estimated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Pentagon. The draft infographic was part of a June 25 policy alert USCIS sent to the Pentagon to inform them this change was coming their way. However the policy change took much of the Pentagon and its service members by surprise, and two officials McClatchy spoke to said DOD was not consulted on the change, which makes it more difficult for some service members to get citizenship for their children born overseas. McClatchy

The policy tightening which children of U.S. service members are granted automatic citizenship, however, comes amid a continuing trend that has taken hold since President Donald Trump took office: the number of military members seeking citizenship has plummeted and the percentage of military applicants getting denied U.S. citizenship remains higher than compared to civilian applicants.

In the latest data available, for the second quarter of 2019, USCIS denied 17.61 percent of the military naturalization applications it received, compared to 11.03 percent of civilian applications getting denied. Overall, the number of military applications for military naturalization has dropped 76 percent, from 3,069 applications in the second quarter of 2017, the first quarter of Trump’s presidency, to 759 in the second quarter of 2019, the most recent data available.

USCIS officials said the new policy was not meant to make it more difficult for children of service members to gain citizenship, but rather to better align USCIS practice with State Department policy.

“There is still a path to citizenship for these children, it just requires different paperwork,” one USCIS official said on the condition of anonymity.

But former military members who now work in immigration law said the only thing the new policy would accomplish was making life harder for the military’s enlisted -- typically 18-to 24-year-olds who are likeliest to be impacted by the new policy, with the fewest resources to be able to deal with it.

“We have people in power who have no idea about the pain they are about to cause these young people,” said retired Marine Corps Maj. Eric Montalvo, who was both prior enlisted and then served as a Marine Corps JAG.

“From a policy standpoint, if what we want is to keep the least amount of distraction off of a soldier at any point in time, then the last thing we want to put on his or her back is whether my child is going to be able to come home with me” when the service member’s tour ends.

Under the new policy, the process is more complex in circumstances where the service member is an immigrant soldier who has not yet naturalized and is still overseas. In those cases, the parent would have to naturalize first, then work through the new policy and paperwork to obtain citizenship for their child.

In both, there will be added paperwork and cost.

“I don’t think USCIS understands the impact of this,”said retired Army Reserve Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, an attorney who specializes in representing immigrant soldiers in her private practice.

In the background call with reporters, USCIS said the pool of impacted service members was very small - maybe as small as about 25 service members a year, a number they said they calculated by looking at the overseas APO (Army Post Office) and FPO (Fleet Post Office) mailing addresses of applications for citizenship.

Both Stock and Montalvo said the number is likely much bigger, because applicants seeking naturalization won’t typically put an APO on the paperwork, but use their permanent home address instead.

Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”