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5 Things to Know About Immigrants in the Military

Policy changes are driving a decrease in naturalization rates for service members

Immigrants have served in the United States Armed Forces since the founding of our country, fighting in every major conflict in American history. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants pledged to defend the United States with their lives in the Civil War, both World Wars, and conflicts like those in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.

An estimated 511,000 foreign-born veterans – many of whom are citizens – live in the U.S., with approximately 40,000 immigrants actively serving today. An average of 7,000 legal permanent residents enlist each year, and more than 100,000 immigrants have served and earned citizenship through the military in the last twenty years. Over the last century, military service has provided a pathway to American citizenship for more than 760,000 immigrant service members.

But naturalization rates for service members fell a staggering 43% in 2019 from the previous year. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) only naturalized 4,135 individuals in FY2018, compared to 7,228 the year prior. For comparison, USCIS completed 11,230 military naturalizations in 2010, the highest rate in the data USCIS has published.

43% fewer naturalizations
in FY18 for immigrants serving in the U.S. Armed Forces
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) "Military Naturalization Statistics"

1| New policies have made naturalization increasingly harder for immigrant recruits

Federal law allows foreign-born individuals who serve on active duty or in any Reserve Components (such as the Navy Reserves or Army National Guard) to naturalize and secure U.S. citizenship after completing one year of honorable service during peacetime, or immediately if serving during designated “periods of hostility,” such as the War on Terrorism (which began on September 11, 2001 and continues today).

In 2017, the Trump Administration restricted this expedited citizenship process by implementing new mandatory wait times before the Department of Defense may issue the “honorable service” paperwork that immigrant service members must have in order to apply for citizenship. Enlistees now have to serve at least six months and complete additional background and security checks before they can even begin the naturalization process, and may have to apply from abroad while deployed, making it significantly more difficult to prepare the required paperwork, fingerprints, and interviews.

On August 25, 2020, a federal judge ruled that the mandatory wait times are illegal, vacating the policy and ordering the Department of Defense to certify service within 30 days of a request.

Previously, programs like the Basic Training Initiative, administered by USCIS, provided onsite immigration resources and staff support so enlistees could begin the naturalization process in the U.S. as soon as they finished training. However, USCIS has now terminated that program in response to the increased mandatory wait times. In 2019, USCIS also shuttered field offices abroad, cutting the number of sites that could administer naturalizations from 23 down to only four, further prolonging the naturalization process for service members stationed abroad.

Barriers to naturalization prevent service-members and veterans from accessing critical benefits like drivers’ licenses and public services, and could force them to violate the terms of the very visas that allowed them to enlist in the U.S. military in the first place, putting them at risk of deportation despite their honorable service. The Government Accountability Office has identified at least 250 veterans who were placed in removal proceedings or deported between 2013 to 2018, and advocates estimate as many as 2,000 veterans have been deported over time.

250+ veterans
placed in removal proceedings or deported from 2013-18
Government Accountability Office Immigration Enforcement: Actions Needed to Better Handle, Identify, and Track Cases Involving Veterans

2| Honorable service does not always guarantee approval for naturalization

For those who manage to complete the application process, approval for naturalization is not guaranteed. In fact, USCIS has denied military naturalization applications at a higher rate than civilian applications for every quarter since the beginning of FY2018. In the third quarter of FY19, one in five military applications were denied — twice the rate for civilian denials.

According to research from the ACLU of California, many military applications are denied because the applicants are not found to demonstrate “good moral character,” a specific term in immigration law, most likely because of previous criminal convictions. Under current law, honorable service is not sufficient to prove “good moral character,” and in fact, being convicted of an “aggravated felony” (another immigration term that encompasses numerous types of convictions) can permanently prevent an immigrant from being able to demonstrate “good moral character.”

As the ACLU explains, “this is striking given that only 15 percent of civilian naturalization applications are denied due to ‘good moral character’ violations, a difference which likely reflects the degree to which veterans struggle with addiction and violence.” The report also points out that “16 percent of military naturalizations applications were denied for failing to follow through on their applications, likely due to deployments.” The ACLU also found that many veterans mistakenly believed (some based on false promises from military recruiters) that they were automatically citizens based on their service.

Stand With Immigrants: MAVNI Program The MAVNI program allowed the U.S. military to recruit immigrants with critical language and medical skills and for those immigrants to earn citizenship. Right now the program is frozen and many enrollees are in jeopardy of being barred from the U.S. because of a new policy out of the Trump Administration. Watch their story here.

3| Immigrants who enlisted to earn citizenship are now losing status, facing deportation

Some immigrants who hold critical language and medical skills were invited to enlist in the military with a promise of citizenship; now, the government has changed the terms on them. The suspension of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program has prevented thousands of immigrants from becoming citizens, and has exposed many who had enlisted to the danger of losing their legal status and being subject to deportation.

In the final months of the Obama Administration, the Department of Defense implemented new vetting requirements for existing MAVNI recruits so onerous that the program ground to a halt. Admission of new recruits was suspended, and current participants were frozen in place, waiting indefinitely to begin training or to be deployed, qualifications they needed in order to qualify for naturalization.

After taking office, the Trump Administration began working to end the program entirely, and the following year, the Republican-controlled Congress included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that effectively barred enlisted soldiers from qualifying for MAVNI positions, a final stake in the heart of the program.

Many individuals who had enrolled in MAVNI before the new changes took place were frozen in place, their deployments delayed indefinitely. In the meantime, some who had been promised a pathway to citizenship have lost their immigration status while waiting for deployment and now face the threat of deportation.

If we do not provide the same opportunities for future immigrants that were provided for our forefathers, it is an affront to our national ideals. We owe these servicemen more for the sacrifices that they have made for this country.
Senator John McCain Contributions of Immigrants to the United States Armed Forces: Hearing before the Committee on Armed Services, Senate, 109th Congress, 2006.

4| Citizenship is appropriate recognition of the contributions and sacrifices immigrants make in their service

Immigrants contribute valuable skills and experience to the military’s ranks in areas like technology, engineering, medicine, and foreign language knowledge and cultural understandings (particularly valuable in complex regions like the Middle East). These contributions are important at a time when the U.S. military needs more individuals to serve; for example, in 2018 the Army missed its recruiting goal for the first time since 2005.

Most importantly, these individuals are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice by putting their lives at risk in defense of our nation. When enlisting, recruits swear an oath to protect the United States and the Constitution, an oath that’s nearly identical to the oath taken for naturalization. This commitment represents extraordinary patriotism and honorable service to others, and our country should meet this commitment in good faith by offering a clear, expedited pathway to citizenship for immigrant service members.

In a 2006 hearing on the contributions of immigrants to the military, Senator John McCain pointed out that immigrants make up 20% of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, and were responsible for developing key technologies like the helicopter and the submarine. He noted that, “If we do not provide the same opportunities for future immigrants that were provided for our forefathers, it is an affront to our national ideals. We owe these servicemen more for the sacrifices that they have made for this country.”

5| Congress and the Trump Administration should ease the pathway for service members to naturalize

In order to reverse these trends, Congress must ensure that the U.S. military is doing its utmost to encourage and support immigrant service members to naturalize.

This includes guaranteeing access to expedited citizenship and reinstating USCIS’ Basic Training Initiative. This should be bolstered with additional outreach and education on naturalization for foreign-born enlistees, and an examination of how broader legal immigration restrictions introduced in the past few years have contributed to declines in enlistment and naturalizations.

Congress should also work to reinstate the MAVNI program to ensure those individuals who were able to enlist before the program’s suspension are allowed to begin their service and naturalize when eligible.

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