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FILE PHOTO: A man holds an envelope from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Service during a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C., in December 2015. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

What new citizenship rules mean for children of U.S. personnel living abroad

Trump officials scrambled Thursday to clarify new citizenship rules for children born outside of the United States to American military personnel and other government employees serving overseas after the rollout sparked widespread confusion.

A memo from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Wednesday announced changes that mean some of those children will no longer automatically be considered U.S. citizens and will face more red tape to secure citizenship.

USCIS officials made the clarifications in a conference call with reporters Thursday after initial reports suggested the policy included more sweeping changes.

“We could have communicated this a lot better, but it is almost nothing,” USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli told PBS NewsHour managing editor and anchor Judy Woodruff later on Thursday.

Here is what we know about who the policy affects and why it was implemented.

Who is affected and who isn’t

Under U.S. law, any child born in the U.S. is considered a citizen at birth. That is called birthright citizenship, and Cuccinelli said the new policy does not change that.

“The only thing that has changed here is the forms they have to fill out, the process they have to go through to get that child to be a U.S. citizen. That is it. We didn’t change a single person who would or could become a U.S. citizen,” Cuccinelli told the PBS NewsHour.

If a child is born to an American parent outside of the U.S., the rules can be complicated.

In most cases, people who have at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen will automatically become a citizen. But, there is a small group of children born to U.S. personnel abroad who do not fit that criteria.

Specifically, a key section of law requires three criteria be met for a child born overseas to automatically become a citizen:

1) At least one parent must be a U.S. citizen
2) The child must be younger than 18 years old
3) The child must reside in the U.S. in the custody of the citizen parent

Under longstanding USCIS policy, children who were living outside of the U.S. but with parents who were serving in the U.S. military or diplomatic corps were considered as “residing in the U.S.” That enabled them to meet the third criteria and move immediately to get a certificate of citizenship.

That will no longer be the case. Beginning Oct. 29, the group of children whose parents don’t meet the three criteria will have to go through an extended application process.

Another statute in immigration law spells out more specific requirements to obtain a citizenship certificate. That part of the law requires that the child have not only a U.S. citizen parent, but one who has been physically present in the United States for at least five years.

Immigration lawyers said the policy change seems to affect a few categories of children: those whose parents do not meet this “physically present” criteria, whose parents are lawful permanent residents still awaiting citizenship but living on a U.S. installation overseas, or who were adopted while their parents were living abroad.

That is where the second change comes in.

As part of the existing application for citizenship, the child and the parent must establish U.S. residency. Under the new guidance, the parent cannot bring the child for a visit to the U.S. They must actually live in the country and provide evidence of that through documentation such as utility bills, property tax records or school transcripts.

USCIS estimates these new rules will affect 20 to 25 people per year.

But military advocates say because the change takes effect so quickly, families don’t have much time to figure out whether they must meet new requirements.

“I think it will add an incredible amount of confusion and stress to what are often already stressful service situations, not only for those in the military but for the diplomatic corps as well,” said Jeremey Butler, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Why the change was made

Cuccinelli tweeted Wednesday that the change was made to align the USCIS’ process with the Department of State’s procedures.

USCIS officials said Thursday that the State Department requested the change because its guidelines were in conflict with USCIS, which it said led to confusion when a person approved for citizenship by USCIS applied for a passport from the State Department.

USCIS said the State Department’s rules were more in line with federal law, so USCIS changed its guidance to match State. In a statement, the State Department said USCIS’ new guidance “is in line with existing, longstanding State Department policy” and pointed reporters to the policy on its website.

Former USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez, who served in the Obama administration, is skeptical of that explanation. He said during his time in office, he never encountered a situation where the child of a U.S. service member was not issued a passport but had proof of citizenship — something that he said would have made its way up the chain to his office.

Rodriguez said it appears Trump officials “went of their way” to engage in a legal analysis so they could further restrict citizenship status.

How has Trump changed citizenship?

This is not the first time the Trump administration has changed the rules around who is granted U.S. citizenship.

Earlier this year, McClatchy reported that U.S. military personnel are being denied citizenship at higher rates than foreign-born civilians.

Fewer visas are being approved for foreign-born U.S. military translators, who often go on to earn U.S. citizenship.

In 2018, it was reported that the U.S. military was discharging immigrant recruits who had been promised a path to citizenship when they enlisted. It later reinstated many of them.

This week’s rule “comes in a broader context of pretty much every couple of weeks there is some announcement that further limits the citizenship options, further limits immigration relief options for people,” Rodriguez said. “It makes the process more difficult. It never makes things easier.”

The PBS NewsHour’s Lisa Desjardins contributed to this report.

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