YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Servicemembers with foreign-born spouses are finding that taking an overseas tour might have unintended effects on the citizenship process for those seeking naturalization.

The issue is receiving renewed attention after the executive officer of the USS Abraham Lincoln brought his wife’s case to the media earlier this month.

The officer’s Japanese-born spouse — who had lived with him in the United States since 1989 before accompanying him on a two-year tour in Japan — was ruled ineligible for U.S. citizenship this spring because the overseas tour interrupted her continuous residency requirement.

According to both military and civilian immigration experts, their case should have turned out differently.

Provisions in immigration law allow exceptions specifically for military dependents overseas, provided they fill out the proper paperwork before leaving the States.

“If they are overseas on military orders, there is no continuing residency requirement,” said Lt. Sylvaine Wong, of Yokosuka Naval Base’s legal services office.

A special attachment to the immigration application, available at all military bases, allows a green-card holding military spouse to expedite citizenship.

When overseas, the officials said, the only requirement to be on American soil during the application process is when the applicant goes for their naturalization interview.

In the case of servicemembers and their dependents in the Pacific, the nearest location is Guam or Hawaii. Information on citizenship issues is readily available at military legal offices and from American embassies, officials said.

Inevitably, the experts say, immigration issues involving military personnel overseas and foreign-born spouses become complicated and sometimes confusing.

“There are acres and acres of gray area on this issue,” said Monica Sharp, an immigration expert with a Seattle-based international technology firm. “The Immigration and Naturalization Service has a great deal of discretion in deciding who is a good-faith immigrant and who is not.”

In the case of Cmdr. Ron Horton — the Lincoln executive officer — and his wife, Teruyo, the citizenship application was rejected when an INS interviewer found that the overseas tour interrupted Teruyo’s continued residency.

If the couple had applied for an expedited citizenship request before they left, immigration experts say, the outcome might have been different.

“If the United States citizen spouse was called to action and the foreign national spouse was accompanying him to his assignment, living in U.S. housing, etc., the service should look kindly upon this,” Sharp said.

“Spouses should also be advised to look into the expedited process more aggressively if they really want to be a United States citizen.”

The Hortons have appealed their case.

Of course, American citizenship is not an issue for all overseas troops and their families.

“I’m not worried about her citizenship situation, because it’s going to be an advantage for us,” said Chief Petty Officer Mike Timmons of Yokosuka, who plans to retire to the Philippines with his Filipina wife.

“Her citizenship will let us buy property there. That’s more important to us.”

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