Citizenship Law Changes

Current federal policy treats babies born to members of the U.S. military who are serving overseas as birthright U.S. citizens no matter where they are born. For example, a couple living on a U.S. military base in Germany or Greenland might have a baby there on the base. The baby would automatically be a U.S. citizen at birth. Under the current rules, that couple legally lives in the United States.

A new policy changes that. If the baby would be a U.S. citizen regardless of birthplace, he or she will still be a U.S. citizen. If the baby’s citizenship relies on the current rules defining the couple as “residing in the United States,” that will no longer be the case. Beginning in October, the parents of that baby would have to apply for citizenship for their child before he or she turned 18. He or she would be a naturalized citizen, not a birthright citizen of the United States.

It is possible that the rule change is directed at non-citizens serving in the military. The National Review suggests that the policy change is a first step toward eliminating birthright citizenship. The language of the policy change suggests that this might be a step toward cracking down on “birth tourism.”

USCIS director Ken Cuccinelli tweeted, “This policy aligns USCIS process with the Department of State’s procedures for these children — that’s it. Period.” The agency has directed journalists to the Tweet when asked for clarification.

As of this writing, there is still some confusion over the policy change and some contradictions in the various reports. But one thing is clear.

Citizenship definitions and rules can change

We have seen claims that Puerto Ricans could keep their U.S. citizenship under Free Association or another form of independence. We’ve seen claims that it would be up to the citizens of the new nation of Puerto Rico, who could vote on the question.

That is not true. Any Compact of Free Association for Puerto Rico and the United States would be negotiated between the two nations. Puerto Rico could not unilaterally force the U.S. to allow Puerto Ricans to keep U.S. citizenship, or do much of anything else.  Such is the nature of a bilateral negotiation.

Even if, after extensive negotiations, Puerto Ricans were able to keep their U.S. citizenship, the U.S., could, and presumably would, discontinuing granting U.S. citizenship to babies born in the new nation.

The U.S. could also continue U.S. citizenship to babies born abroad to U.S. citizen parents but could, for example, impose a residency requirement if the new person is brought back to Puerto Rico and continues to live there without ever living in the U.S.

The point is that the U.S. government could make many requirements it deems necessary with respect to U.S. citizenship among Puerto Ricans, and there would be little Puerto Ricans could do beyond making arguments against those it finds undesirable.  After all, decisions about U.S. citizenship can ultimately be made only by the U.S. government.

In fact, people who are born in the three nations currently in Free Association with the U.S. – Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia – are not U.S. citizens.

Claims that Puerto Ricans and their children would always be citizens of the United States sometimes rely on the idea that the federal government wouldn’t make a change in citizenship rules. The announcement just made by the federal government proves that this is also not true.

Updated September 3, 2019

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