Why a New Trump Immigration Policy Caused Panic Among U.S. Military Families

Trump Army Policy
Photo: Miodrag Gajic/Getty Images

Having a baby is exciting and terrifying. In the haze of birth, parents seek answers to tons of questions big and small. For military moms and dads serving overseas, mapping out their baby’s path to U.S. citizenship is among the first things to tackle.

“There’s a ridiculous amount of paperwork when you have an overseas birth,” said Kathleen Calabrese, a civilian Army spouse who gave birth to her daughter in 2015 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. In true military fashion, she received a multi-step flow chart to navigate the arduous process. If a birth occurs outside of a military base, there are even more steps to follow.

Military families are tough. We’re used to bureaucracy. But for a few hours on Wednesday, a policy memo from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services suggested the citizenship of children born to service members overseas would no longer be automatic. The bungled messaging caused widespread panic among the military community.

The original guidance said the USCIS “no longer considers children of U.S. government employees and U.S. armed forces members residing outside the United States as ‘residing in the United States’ for purposes of acquiring citizenship under INA 320.”

It has since been clarified, and the new changes will affect non-citizen service members and government employees whose children are born after October 29th, 2019.

But that adjustment wasn’t released until panic had spread through Twitter, and the military community. In the hours before the memo was corrected, my phone turned hot to the touch with the number of military friends reaching out to me in fear and frustration. Giving birth while stationed overseas is actually pretty common. Around 5,000 babies were born to active duty military personnel outside of the United States in 2016. And for each of them, the arduous process of qualifying for their U.S. citizenship followed.

Once your baby is born, you need an AE Reg 40-400 form, certifying a child has been born abroad to American parents. If the baby is born at a German hospital, as in Calabrese’s example, you have to find time to bring 30 Euro to city hall for a birth certificate. You have seven days to enroll your baby into DEERS, the military’s system that will count your child as your dependent.

After that, you must apply to have your baby “Command Sponsored,” which basically asks the servicemember’s command for permission to keep the baby overseas. When that process is complete, it’s time to register baby in Tricare, the military health system. Pay is affected when you have a child, so you have to march to the finance office to update your number of dependents since the systems don’t talk to each other.

Trump Army Policy

You can now make an appointment to have all your documents reviewed. If you pass this gauntlet, which often takes several visits to get right, you may move on to the passport appointment, where both parents must attend. A passport becomes an urgent for a newborn baby born abroad when their parents have any plans to return stateside and show off their new bundle.

If all goes according to plan, you will receive a Social Security Card for baby in the mail, add that info into the DEERS system and — hooray! — you’re done. An arduous and lengthy process, to be sure, but the question of whether or not your military baby would be granted U.S. citizenship after all is said and done has been pretty automatic: You’re a U.S. citizen working somewhere in the world on behalf of the U.S., and your baby is one of us, too. That “guarantee” is what President Trump’s new policy calls into question.

Not much will change for U.S. citizens serving overseas in the new policy. But members of the military who are Green Card holders will now have to apply for naturalization for their children born outside of the country after October — even if the birth happens on a military base, which previously was considered a form of U.S. soil.

That leaves room for the decision to be denied, when it was once a guarantee for all service members, regardless of citizenship status, because military installations were considered “residing in the United States.” Legal permanent residents in the United States (i.e. those holding a green card) are able to join the military if they pass a thorough background check, and they are able to apply for naturalization later. In line with many other Trump policy changes, this is specifically targeting people who are seeking to become U.S. citizens (yes, even those doing so through proper channels).

The Pentagon has said the number of families affected by this change will be small, but thousands of legal permanent residents serve on active duty and could feel the impact of this change.

Serving overseas can be really isolating, even without the added stress of a new baby. Combined with issues that many new parents face — sleep-deprivation, exhaustion, and the risk of postpartum depression among them — dealing with a complicated application process for your child’s citizenship is already the icing on the cake. Taking away any certainty from that process only makes it more difficult.

David Doescher was stationed with his wife at Yokota Air Base outside of Tokyo when their daughter was born.

“If this happened five years ago when she was born, it would have been a huge stress on us. We wouldn’t have known what to do. It’s already a weird process,” Doescher says.

When you have a baby overseas, you probably won’t have the usual support system that many new parents enjoy while stateside. If you’re lucky, you’ll be connected with other parents in your unit. But with extended family on the other side of the earth, new parents have to adjust on their own. With a policy that means they may be adjusting to life as new parents with a child who is unable to access citizenship in their home country — the United States — it may mean adjusting to choosing a new place to live, and a new line of work, entirely.

Military families are tough. They’re loyal. But will a naturalized citizen of the United States serving abroad choose to return to this country over a place where their child is welcomed with open arms? Probably not. And you have to wonder if that is the point.

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