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US Air Force photo by Benjamin Thacker

The Trump administration unleashed a shitstorm of fear and confusion Wednesday when US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a tweak to how it processes citizenship for some children born overseas to US military personnel and other government workers. The change would end automatic citizenship for children born overseas to two small groups: military parents who are not yet citizens, and to citizens who may have left the USA as kids and then grown up elsewhere. Their kids can still become citizens, but only after a long application process. But because the policy change wasn't framed very clearly, many military folks and those worried about the administration's ongoing war on immigrants thought the policy would apply to all military families who have kids while deployed overseas, and can you blame them? In this essay we shall argue that the whole wretched mess is yet another example of what we've called the Trump administration's weaponized incompetence. Why just do a policy when you can also maximize fear, uncertainty, and doubt among people you want to scare? There's a lot of confusion out there about what exactly this new policy is supposed to do, and we're fairly sure that uncertainty is part of the plan.


On one level, this is a really narrow policy change that will only affect a small portion of children born overseas to US parents. The San Diego Union-Tribune and Miltary.com both offer very clear explainers on what's changing here; we'll crib from the Union-Tribune:

One of the changes in the memo that received the most attention on Wednesday is that USCIS will no longer consider members of the military and other government employees to be residing in the United States for purposes of their children's citizenship if they are serving on overseas assignment.

The new rule eliminates a legal fiction that serving in the military is the same as "residing in the United States." But as immigration attorneys who have plowed through the details explain, the redefinition applies only to two groups: 1) immigrants who have not yet become naturalized when their kids are born overseas; and 2) "people who are born in the U.S. but go back to the country of their parents during childhood and do not return to live in the U.S." -- a not-uncommon situation for American citizens from the border region, who are might be born on the US side but raised in Mexico. It's also common for kids born in the US whose families move to Israel, according to San Diego immigration attorney Kathrin Mautino.

The upshot? Children born to folks in those narrow categories will need to go through a more cumbersome naturalization process before they turn 18.

Military.com explains the new rule will NOT apply to children born to any of the following categories of military parents:

  • U.S. citizen parents who have maintained a residence in the U.S. before the child's birth
  • a foreign national and a U.S. citizen parent who has physically been in the U.S. or one of its territorial possessions for at least five years
  • those who have received a Consular Report of Birth Abroad or Certificate of Citizenship acquired at birth
  • unmarried parents if the U.S. citizen parent meets certain requirements [phrasing taken from the article, arranged in bullet-list format by Wonkette -- Dok]

So why was everyone freaking out? It was all because of that fuzzy phrase "will no longer consider members of the military [...] to be residing in the United States for purposes of their children's citizenship," which sure as hell sounded like it applied to everyone. The full rule is published in an update to a policy manual, and as the Associated Press points out, the administration's own communication about the policy was as crappy as we've all come to expect:

The policy manual update is highly technical and contradicts parts of an 11-page memo the agency initially put out that implied American citizens were among those whose children would no longer be automatically granted citizenship if born abroad.

To make matters worse, the administration hasn't offered any detailed rationale for the change apart from a vague statement from USCIS acting director Ken Cuccinelli, who said the policy "aligns USCIS's process with the Department of State's procedures for these children -- that's it. Period." That's what the change does, but nobody's yet said why exactly such a change is needed. The Washington Post reports,

Officials said the existing policy conflicts with State Department guidance and a 2008 law, leading to confusion when issuing citizenship decisions. To obtain citizenship, these parents must apply for citizenship on their child's behalf, by filling out a form and meeting other requirements.

How often does that confusion happen? How serious are those cases, really? Why is restricting the number of military parents who can benefit the preferred solution? If this change occurred under any other administration, we might be inclined to give the administration some benefit of the doubt on this simple rule change, but nah -- we know better than to trust an arsonist who wants to "streamline" building codes to require fewer fire extinguishers.

Given the frequently expressed desire of Donald Trump and his immigration amygdala Stephen Miller to cut back on legal immigration and even end birthright citizenship, the move, however narrow its immediate effect, was viewed with suspicion by immigration advocates. Martin Lester, a Tennessee immigration attorney who chairs the American Immigration Lawyers Association's military assistance program, told the Post,

"I don't understand how changing this policy makes America safer by telling its servicemen and women and its government employees that it's going to make it harder for their children to be Americans," he said. "Who possibly thought that this was a good idea?"

Gosh, we can't imagine who. As Lester told the AP, "It's gonna take time, money, it's gonna cause stress. There's gonna be some people whose kids aren't gonna qualify and that's gonna cause a huge problem."

The fact that this policy merely whittles away at citizenship rights, instead of lopping them off with a chainsaw, is no reason to breathe a huge sigh of relief. It's one more step aimed at making citizenship just a little bit harder for some people, and that's where the weaponized incompetence comes in: if the resulting fear and confusion leads any of those people to not even bother trying to jump through the hoops, then it's Mission Accomplished.

[WaPo / Military.com / San Diego Union-Tribune / AP / Vanity Fair / Photo: Benjamin Thacker, Patrick AFB, Florida]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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