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Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tyler R. Fraser / US Navy / DVIDS
US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced a policy change Wednesday which will affect children of non-US citizens serving in the military who are born abroad while their parents are serving.
While USCIS says that only about two dozen people will be affected, veterans who spoke to Insider expressed concern that the policy is targeting immigrant troops and their children.
"Why are we targeting people who want to serve?" Jeremy Butler, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said to Insider.
The number of military members applying for naturalization has decreased dramatically since their peak in 2010. Only 4,135 service members became naturalized last year, less than half the number naturalized in 2016.
A new policy from US Citizenship and Immigration Services caused confusion and concern during a botched rollout on Wednesday. While USCIS says that approximately two dozen families would be affected each year, veterans and advocates questioned the need for the new policy and confusion around it.
According to The New York Times, the current policy affects about 100 families. But the policy was so unpopular among those constructing it that the agency delayed its implementation for months, The New York Times reported, citing unnamed government officials.
The new policy will affect primarily US permanent residents who are deployed or working for the government abroad and give birth, and US citizens adopting foreign-born children. Both groups must file a form to establish permanent legal registry with USCIS, and it's unclear if officials will handle this review differently now. USCIS told reporters on Thursday that the policy change will bring USCIS policy in line with State Department regulations regarding the citizenship status of children born abroad to US military and government employees.
"This is coming as such a shock and surprise and there's so little understanding that people don't even know what questions to ask," Jeremy Butler, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Insider.
"There's just such confusion right now."
When the policy was initially reported on Wednesday, it was unclear who would be affected by the change. The New York Times reported that the Pentagon was caught off guard by the change, and service branches and the Office of the Secretary of Defense struggled to give reporters clear answers to questions about the change.
Butler expressed skepticism about the need for the policy change, as well.
"Why was it so poorly rolled out, if it was such an important thing to do?" he said.
"We have a lot of immigrants who are enlisted in the military," Butler told Insider, "and it sounds like this is who USCIS is targeting."
The military is going through a period of difficulty recruiting and retaining servicemembers, Butler noted. He worried that the new policy could deter non-citizens from enlisting. "Why are we targeting people who want to serve?"
Non-US citizens can obtain citizenship by serving in the military, provided they serve honorably and meet other requirements.
But the number of military members applying for naturalization has decreased dramatically since their peak in 2010. Only 4,135 service members became naturalized last year, less than half the number naturalized in 2016.
Previous to the policy change, Butler said, "there was an understanding, you're putting your life on the line for this country, we're going to make this easier for you."
Charlotte Clymer, an Army veteran with six years of service, told Insider that as the child of a military family, "I knew families that had adopted children, or children who were born outside the United States and there was no issue, they were part of the military family."
"I'm really worried about the way that those in positions of authority might perceive this and act erroneously without guidance," she added.
Insider reached out to USCIS for more information regarding guidance about the new policy, but did not receive a response by press time.
Clymer echoed concerns about Trump's stated desire to do away with birthright citizenship, saying the policy "shows once again that Donald Trump doesn't care about the military and military families."
"If they really think this only affects 25 people, why have they invested the time and resources to do it? It's only because it's one more step in their ongoing policy to restrict legal immigration," Martin Lester, an immigration attorney, told The New York Times.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of USCIS, stated on Twitter that the new policy was not seeking to revoke birthright citizenship, tweeting that it only affects children who were born outside the U.S. and were not U.S. citizens. This does NOT impact birthright citizenship."