Barely a year after the Trump administration rolled back a misbegotten policy to discharge immigrants serving in the military when their citizenship stalled because of the immigration bureaucracy, anti-immigrant zealotry is at it again.
The repercussions will hit immigrants and their families, and a recruit-starved Pentagon.
This new policy, as did the previous one, will affect those patriotic immigrants who stepped forward to serve their adopted country in uniform, understanding that as a consequence they likely would be deployed at hazard for the nation they love.
Last summer the brouhaha involved the Pentagon discharging hundreds of immigrant servicemembers whose citizenship paperwork languished in the federal bureaucracy. Essentially, administration officials decided these patriots, who often fill hard-to-recruit specialties, were alleged security risks and expendable. But public outcry helped stop the policy. (This shameful species of official disloyalty is not unprecedented.)
The policy, while reversed under duress, was damaging at a profound level.
“I need justice. This is America. This is not China. This is not the Middle East. This is not a dictatorship. And that's why I love America,” said one immigrant, Army recruit and Texas A&M doctoral candidate Panshu Zhao, after he was booted without explanation.
While this reprise of last year’s foolishness likely will affect fewer immigrants, for those it does affect, the impact will be gut-wrenching — and the moral outrage is just as egregious.
On Aug. 28, with little explanation and no public advance notice, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a “Policy Alert” changing its interpretation of “residence” and stating that it no longer will consider the children of servicemembers stationed abroad to be “residing” in the United States for immigration purposes.
While the agency has tried to pass off this change as merely a technical correction, immigration advocates were quick to point out that the policy change will deny automatic U.S. citizenship to some children of servicemembers, and will force some to undergo a long and expensive application process.
Examples of affected servicemembers will include recently naturalized members of the U.S. military who do not have five years of “physical presence” in the United States, servicemembers born in the United States who left to live abroad as children and do not have two years of “physical presence” after age 14, servicemembers with green cards who return to the U.S. to naturalize but now cannot use that opportunity to obtain automatic citizenship for their children, and certain servicemembers who adopt children overseas.
No one knows at this point how widespread the impact of this new policy will be. In our opinion, however, a USCIS policy change that hurts even one military family serving abroad by putting their child’s U.S. citizenship at risk is a policy change that betrays the trust of our young men and women in uniform and their families. It weakens military readiness, and reduces America’s ability to confront the real and growing threats we face around the world.
With America, a nation founded on immigration, ineptly facing serious challenges within its immigration system, why the administration would expend precious time and effort on this hairsplitting gesture of exclusion one can only surmise.
But certainly, what Trump administration officials have accomplished is to further gum up the immigration works, make it tougher for the military to recruit the quality men and women we need, and bedim the beacon we’re supposed to be holding “atop the hill.”
Martin W. Lester is a Tennessee-based attorney with Lester Law who chairs the Military Assistance Program (MAP) Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. AILA MAP provides pro bono immigration law assistance to servicemembers around the world.
Jeffrey E. Phillips is executive director of ROA, dba Reserve Organization of America, open to all ranks and promoting a strong, ready reserve force. A retired U.S. Army Reserve major general, he served in the Regular Army for nearly 14 years.