Today’s U.S. military faces personnel shortages that affect our nation’s readiness and threaten our national security. But if our leaders are willing to act, there is an obvious solution to this problem: immigration.
Immigrants have served in the U.S. armed forces since the nation’s founding, fighting in every major conflict in American history. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have sacrificed their lives defending America during the Civil War, including both World Wars and conflicts such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In this article we will see why some immigrants are not naturalized and what the government needs to do to strengthen the U.S. military.
Is the number of Immigrants Enlisted in the U.S. Military really Enough?
FWD.us estimates that there are currently about 700,000 foreign-born veterans living in the United States, many of whom are now U.S. citizens. We estimate that there are about 45,000 active immigrants.
The administration’s latest estimates show that about 5,000 legal permanent residents enlist in the military each year. Over the past 20 years, more than 148,000 immigrants have served in the military and been granted citizenship. Military service has paved the way to U.S. citizenship for more than 760,000 military immigrants over the past century.
But enlistments have fallen sharply in recent years, dropping by more than half from 2016 to 2019; only 3,760 military personnel were naturalized in 2019, down from 8,885 in 2016.
Why is immigrant enlistment in the U.S. military put into perspective?
The enlistment of immigrants into the U.S. military is put into perspective for several reasons:
1.) New policies have made naturalization increasingly difficult for immigrant recruits
Federal law allows foreign-born individuals on active duty or in any reserve force (such as the Naval Reserve or the Army National Guard) to naturalize and obtain citizenship. U.S. citizens obtain citizenship immediately after completing one year of honorable peacetime service, or after serving for a specified period. “Hostile periods,” such as the War on Terror (which began on September 11, 2001 and continues to this day).
In 2017, the Trump administration limited this expedited citizenship process by imposing a new mandatory waiting period before the Department of Defense can issue the “honorary service” document that service members must have to apply for citizenship. Enlisted men must now serve at least six months and complete additional background and security checks before they can begin the naturalization process. They may have to apply from overseas during the deployment, making the preparation more complex, the required documents, fingerprints and the interview.
On August 25, 2020, a federal judge ruled that the mandatory waiting time was illegal, invalidating the policy and ordering the Department of Defense to certify service within 30 days of application. However, the damage has already been done.
Previously, programs such as the Basic Training Program administered by USCIS provided on-site immigration resources and staff support so that recruits could begin the naturalization process in the U.S. immediately after training. However, USCIS has now terminated the program in response to increased mandatory wait times. In 2019, USCIS also closed overseas field offices, reducing the number of locations where naturalization can be managed from 23 to just four, further prolonging the naturalization process for military personnel serving overseas.
Barriers to naturalization prevent military personnel and veterans from accessing essential benefits, such as driver’s licenses and civil service, and can force them to violate the terms of the visa that originally allowed them to enlist, putting them at risk of deportation despite their honorable service. The Government Accountability Office has identified at least 250 veterans who were placed in deportation proceedings or deported between 2013 and 2018, and advocates estimate that up to 2,000 veterans have been deported over time.
2.) Honorable service does not always guarantee approval for naturalization
Naturalization approval is not guaranteed for those who manage to complete the application process. In fact, under the Trump administration, USCIS has rejected military citizenship applications at a higher rate than civilian applications. In the third quarter of fiscal 2019, one in five military applications was denied, double the civilian denial rate, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
However, this trend appears to be reversing. In fiscal year 2020, the military naturalization denial rate fell to 8 percent, below the 11 percent average for civilian applications.
According to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union of California, many military applications are denied because applicants have not demonstrated “good moral character,” a specific term in immigration law that may be due to prior criminal convictions. Under current law, honorable service is not enough to demonstrate “good moral character” and, in fact, being convicted of an “aggravated felony” (another immigration term that encompasses multiple convictions) can permanently prevent an immigrant from being able to demonstrate “good moral character.”
As the ACLU explains, “Given that only 15% of civilian naturalization applications are denied for ‘good character’ violations, this difference may reflect the extent to which veterans struggle with substance abuse and violence.” The report also states that “16% of enlistment applications were denied because they did not follow through, possibly due to deployment. The ACLU also found that many veterans mistakenly believe (some based on false promises from recruiters) that they automatically become citizens by serving.
3.) Immigrants who enlisted for citizenship now lose their status and face deportation
Some immigrants with basic language and medical skills were invited to join the military and were promised citizenship. Now the government has changed the conditions. The suspension of the Vital Military Enlistment for the National Interest (VMI) program has prevented thousands of immigrants from becoming citizens and put many enlistees at risk of losing their legal status and being deported.
In the final months of the Obama administration, the Department of Defense imposed new verification requirements for existing MAVNI recruits that were so onerous that the program was shut down. Recruit intake is suspended and current participants are frozen, waiting indefinitely to begin training or deployment, where they must be eligible for naturalization.
After taking office, the Trump administration decided to end the program once and for all, and the following year, the Republican-controlled Congress included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that effectively prevented enlisted soldiers from qualifying for MAVNI positions. The final problem is at the heart of the program.
Many people who signed up for MAVNI before the new changes were frozen and their deployments were delayed indefinitely. Meanwhile, some people who were promised citizenship lost their immigration status while waiting to be deployed and are now facing deportation.
Naturalization as an incentive to enlist in the U.S. military
#Citizenship is an appropriate recognition of the contributions and sacrifices immigrants make in service
Immigrants bring invaluable skills and experience to the military in areas such as technology, engineering, medicine, foreign language skills, and cultural understanding (especially valuable in complex regions such as the Middle East). These contributions are important at a time when the U.S. military needs more people to serve; in 2018, for example, the military missed its recruiting goals for the first time since 2005.
More importantly, these individuals are willing to risk their lives to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country. After enlisting in the military, recruits take an oath to protect the United States and the Constitution, an oath almost identical to the naturalization oath.
This pledge represents extraordinary patriotism and honorable service to others, and our country must honor this good faith commitment to provide a clear and expedited path to citizenship for DHS members.
At a 2006 hearing on the contributions of immigrants to the military, Senator John McCain noted that immigrants make up 20 percent of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients and are responsible for the development of key technologies such as helicopters and submarines. He noted, “It would be an affront to our national ideals if we did not give future immigrants the same opportunities as our ancestors. We owe those soldiers more for the sacrifices they made for this country.
#Congress and the Biden administration should ease the path to naturalization for service members
To continue to reverse these trends, Congress and the Biden Administration must ensure that the U.S. military does everything possible to encourage and support the naturalization of immigrant service members.
This includes securing expedited citizenship and reinstating the USCIS basic training program. This should be supported by additional outreach and education on naturalization for foreign-born enlisted members, and a focus on military enlistment and naturalization as part of its review of the broader legal immigration system.
Congress should also work to revive the MAVNI program and ensure that those who were able to enlist prior to the program’s suspension are allowed to begin military service and naturalize if eligible.
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