An Immigration Controversy That Produces Minimal Results

By David North on September 4, 2019

If there is to be a full-throated immigration policy controversy — and the media is good at producing them — let's make sure that we make some sizable policy gains in the process.

We are currently going through the exact reverse of this — a full-blown controversy about whether or not about 25 children of U.S. military or civilian employees a year have to fill out a DHS form to ensure their U.S. citizenship following their birth overseas.

Meanwhile, the media, often suspicious about the aims of this (lamentable) administration, stirred up a huge storm of protest. Two of the typical headlines:

  • Reuters: "Trump administration tightens citizenship rules for children of U.S. military abroad".
  • Fox News: "Policy on automatic citizenship for children born abroad to US military members changed".

And Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of USCIS, was grilled on the PBS "News Hour" Friday, August 30, by an angry anchor, Judy Woodruff. There was no discussion of any other part of immigration policy, just this new, narrow rule.

The children of the military, like apple pie and Santa Claus, are routinely widespread objects of affection. Doing something negative to any of them is one of the third rails of U.S. politics. How did USCIS get into this mess? And what was at stake here?

The Stakes. The new ruling says that under what turn out to be extremely unusual circumstances, some military parents and some civilian workers of the U.S. overseas have to file another set of papers to make sure that their children — but only if they are born abroad — secure birthright citizenship. Now most children of the U.S. military are born here, certainly if the father is in combat, and pregnant women in the military are rarely overseas at the time of birth. Most people employed by the military or other parts of the government overseas are either citizens or are married to citizens.

The new rule impacts only children born overseas to parents who are in the employ of the United States and are both non-citizens. It turns out — though USCIS did not announce this immediately — that this happens maybe 20 or 25 times a year.

Further, as far as I know, this is not a problem population. The numbers are tiny and the challenges presented by these 25 each year must be minuscule. So from a policy point of view, why bother with them? The nation has survived for a long time despite our perhaps casual rules on overseas births to employees of the U.S. government.

Mine is a non-lawyerly point of view, I know, but why not continue a policy of benign neglect toward this population? Why waste executive time and good will on this tiny discrepancy?

The Presentation. Once the administration decided to go forward with this potentially troublesome policy, did it do so with skill?

Far from it.

As a one-time publicist for a government agency (the island territories' office in the Department of the Interior), I sense several problems with the roll-out of the policy, first in hiding the extreme minuteness of the program, then in its packaging, accuracy of its presentation, and its timing.

As to its size, DHS, as often happens, did not disclose the numbers impacted by the new rule, at least initially, so the number of people potentially touched by the program (or harmed by it, if that is your point of view) is not known, and can be easily imagined as large.

As to packaging, why take a potentially explosive new item and present it all alone?

Why not gather up each of four or five obscure new regulations, announce them all at once, with the number of people involved estimated for each? USCIS could start with the latest wrinkle in the visas for temporary workers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, discuss the new reciprocity agreement with France regarding treaty investors (both real items), and then look around for some others, such as maybe a note about the terms of employment for Thai workers on Midway (H-2B), and how much agricultural employers can charge their H-2A workers for their meals — adding the new wrinkle about these overseas births somewhere in this mix.

USCIS would have then met any obligation in had to publish this information, and reporters and critics simply might not notice.

Accuracy about the program would, of course help. Military-centric website Task & Purpose quoted the USCIS policy memorandum, saying "the policy impacted 'children residing abroad with their U.S. citizen parents who are U.S. government employees or members of the U.S. armed forces.'"

It then went on (more gently than I would have written):

But that's not quite the case, as USCIS officials later clarified: it affects only children who were not citizens at birth, which means children adopted overseas, and children born to non-U.S. citizen parents.

In other words, a howler of an error, making it appear that the new rule would have much more of an impact than is the case.

The timing of the release might have been manipulated in such a way as to discourage much press coverage. This opportunity was ignored. I — and a lot of other writers — got a little note from USCIS by email at 11:01 a.m. on August 28, a Wednesday morning. With a little more foresight, the release could have been sent out two days later, in the late afternoon, on the Friday before the Labor Day weekend. But it was not.

If we are going to have this much controversy about an immigration matter, let it be over something useful, like creating 300,000 jobs for American college grads by eliminating the OPT program.