Michele Coven Wolgel -  Emil Salman - 25112011
Michele Coven Wolgel Photo by Emil Salman
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The U.S. State Department is withholding American citizenship from the children of American parents who were born abroad and never lived in the States, according to an American-Israeli immigration lawyer currently fighting dozens of such cases.

Until 2007, the children of two U.S. citizen parents were granted citizenship even if they had never lived in America, so long as one parent visited the country. But since then, U.S. authorities in Israel have rejected the applications of dozens, if not hundreds, of such cases, saying that U.S. immigration law stipulates that at least one parent needs to have lived permanently in the States to be able to get citizenship. Earlier this year, the State Department even revoked the citizenship of two Israeli-born children because officials found after a review that the parents never permanently lived in America. After an appeal, a legal adviser to the Jerusalem consulate issued an opinion stating that the children should be eligible for citizenship, but the State Department has yet to grant it to them. A State Department spokesperson said the case was pending and they could not comment.

"There is a general anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner trend in the United States," said Michele Coven Wolgel, a New York-born attorney from Maaleh Adumim who specializes in securing U.S. citizenship for children and grandchildren of Americans. "They're making it more difficult for everyone to get citizenship or Green Cards or anything, any way that they can, anywhere."

The State Department maintains that it acts according to the law and denied that its interpretation of the law changed.

According to section 301 (c ) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a child born abroad to two U.S. citizen parents acquires U.S. citizenship at birth if one parent "had a residence in the United States" before the child was born.

While the law is not explicit about what constitutes "a residence," Wolgel says that a one-day visit suffices. Her interpretation is based on section 1133.3-1 of the U.S. Foreign Affairs Manual, which specifies that "No specific period of residence is required" in such a case.

In the past, the American Embassy in Israel used the same interpretation. Until 2007, the website of the Embassy in Tel Aviv also stated that "no specific period of residence" was required if both parents are U.S. citizens. But this phrase has since been removed from the website. A document the embassy used to hand out until 2007 was even more explicit: "If both parents were U.S. citizens at the time of the child's birth, one parent needs to show one day of physical presence in the US."

Several websites of U.S. embassies and consulates across the world still state that if both parents are citizens, it is enough for one parent to have "visited the United States at least once." But since the summer of 2007 - without any laws being changed - the American authorities in Israel started refusing citizenship to children of parents who could not provide bank accounts, pay stubs, rental contracts or other documents proving that they had a permanent residence in America.

A., a 34-year-old American-Israeli, said she received U.S. passports for her first five children based on the proof she produced that she had visited there often.

"They never asked for anything," said A., who asked her name be withheld because she fears repercussions from the State Department. "When I arrived with my sixth child, with exactly the same documents as always, they asked me when I lived in America. When I explained to them that I never really lived there, the clerk put a big X on my file. I told him, but I have five children who are U.S. citizens. So he said, well, we might have to review their files and might take away their citizenship." A., who lives in a suburb of Jerusalem, was able to get her files cleared up after getting a letter from an American camp she had worked at as a teenager stating that she had been a salaried employee. Others were not so lucky.

"My sister was not able to get a passport for her younger children - because she didn't work at that camp," said A. in accent-less English. "She has been back and forth many times, she actually spent more time there than me - she even rented a home there. They asked her to bring a rental contract, but when she brought it, they said it's not enough, because she only rented the apartment for half a year."

C., who was born in Jerusalem to American parents and is married to an Israeli-born U.S. citizen, spent many months in Brooklyn as a child - but is unable to prove he lived there permanently. He was unable to get passports for his children.

"I showed her the printout from their own website stating that even one day is enough. But she said no, the law said you have to really live there. We started to argue, but nothing helped," he said.

Yitzchak Heimowitz, the chairman of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel's legal committee, concured that the U.S. authorities had changed their interpretation of immigration law, making Israeli-Americans' lives more difficult.

"There is a trend within the State Department, they are trying to give these laws a restrictive rather than an expansive interpretation," he told Anglo File. "Nothing changed in the law or in the regulation, just the interpretation changed."

A spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs told Anglo File that she couldn't comment on individual cases, but denied the allegations that the agency had changed its reading of the law.

"The Department has not changed its interpretation of U.S. citizenship laws," the spokesperson wrote in an email. "Because we place a high value on U.S. citizenship, we carefully adjudicate each case to confirm whether an individual has acquired citizenship under U.S. law. In instances where we discover that a U.S. citizen did not meet legal requirements for transmitting citizenship to his or her children, we will assist that person in identifying other options to which they may be entitled, such as an immigrant visa."

Children of foreign-born U.S. citizens who are denied automatic citizenship have another way to attain American passports. Children under the age of 18 who were born abroad to an American parent can get naturalized if they have a grandparent who lived in the U.S. for at least five years. However, the children and the parents have to appear at an office of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services in the United States.

"There is really no reason why I should have to shlep the entire family to America, it's a hassle and it costs a lot of money," said N., of Jerusalem, who was unable to get his children passports here although he and his wife are American citizens. "But if we can't do it any other way, I guess we'll have to do just that. It's very important for us that the kids get American passports."