The Trump administration’s latest immigration policy this week was met with widespread confusion, fear and distrust as officials struggled to explain the impact and advocacy lawyers remained skeptical that administration hardliners weren’t trying to curtail the rights of U.S. service members and their families.
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At issue was a change in U.S. policy that applied to the children of military and other federal personnel living abroad. Only certain families would be impacted, such as U.S. employees who don’t meet residency requirements and a U.S. citizen who adopts a child born outside the country.
Administration officials scrambled Thursday to underscore that birthright citizenship rights wouldn’t be impacted and that the rules wouldn’t prevent families from acquiring citizenship from their children while living abroad. Only an estimated 20 to 25 people a year would be affected, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).
“There is still a pathway of citizenship for these children. It simply requires different paperwork,” a USCIS official told reporters Thursday.
Sources said many aides inside the White House were caught off guard by the move.
“The rollout was botched and not properly coordinated with the White House," said one White House aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
But many stakeholders and legal experts are skeptical because the new policy would give authorities the opportunity to deny children citizenship. The Trump administration’s primary policy push since 2017 has been to curb both legal and illegal immigration. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cast the move as an "attack" by Trump on military families.
America’s servicemembers & diplomats abroad are among our nation’s best, yet @realDonaldTrump is launching an attack on their families, putting in doubt the citizenship of their children born overseas. This shameful policy must be reversed immediately. https://t.co/UaKZlxx2qK— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) August 29, 2019
"It’s a real shame," said Martin W. Lester, an immigration lawyer based in Tennessee and chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association military assistance program. "I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone thought this policy was necessary or appropriate."
Currently, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service would classify children born abroad to U.S. parents as “residing in the United States,” even though they technically weren’t. That designation, however, would automatically allow them to acquire citizenship.
Officials said that approach caused a bureaucratic headache with the State Department when it came to issuing passports.
USCIS officials determined that after Oct. 29, 2019, children born overseas to some American parents wouldn’t automatically be classified as residing in the U.S. Certain parents would have to apply for citizenship on their child’s behalf before they turn 18.
“This policy aligns USCIS’ process with the Department of State’s procedure, that’s it,” Acting USCIS Director Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement.
Will Attig, executive director of the AFL-CIO Union Veterans Council, still called the plan an “abomination.”
“When you raise your right hand to volunteer to die for your country, the least our nation can do is repay that debt,” Attig said in a statement on Thursday. “This is a direct attack on the values that the men and women who serve our country valiantly fight and die for, and the ideas our nation was built on.”
ABC News' Katherine Faulders and Serena Marshall contributed to this report.