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Immigrants have played a crucial role in military service for hundreds of years, starting all the way back during the Civil War. Today, more than ever, foreign-born servicemembers make up an important part of the US military, adding valuable skills and experience that are necessary as the needs of the military get more complex. Recruitment numbers are going down across the board and in 2018, the Army missed its recruiting goal for the first time in 13 years. But recruits from overseas are helping to bridge that gap.

Traditionally, there have been enormous incentives to foreign-born individuals to enlist. Major military programs began during WWI and WWII to expedite citizenship proceedings and naturalize immigrants who joined the military. In fact, military service has contributed to 760,000 immigrants gaining their citizenship in the last century. It’s a key motivator that provides our military valuable servicemembers and gives Soldiers a chance to become a citizen in the country they’re serving.

But for the 45,000 immigrants actively serving and the 5,000 legal permanent residents who enlist every year, that pathway towards citizenship is becoming narrower. Starting in 2016, the U.S. began implementing policies that greatly hindered foreign-born servicemembers from applying for citizenship. The effects could be seen immediately. There were 8,885 servicemembers naturalized in 2016. By 2019, that number dropped by more than half to 3,760.

So, while military naturalization is still a viable path towards citizenship, it’s important to know the changes that have been put in place that are hurting the chances of those who are serving our country from becoming part of our country.

Mandatory Wait Times

For the last twenty years, any foreign-born active duty or reserve servicemember became eligible for citizenship immediately after signing up. During peacetime, one must serve for a year, but according to this statute, we haven’t technically been in peacetime since September 11th, 2001. This allowed for an immediate benefit for immigrants joining the military and, at times, they could begin their naturalization process during boot camp.

However, a key part of the process was being issued “honorable service” paperwork from the Department of Defense. Beginning in 2017, the Trump administration enacted mandatory wait times for issuing that paperwork, forcing servicemembers to serve at least six months before being granted the necessary forms to apply for citizenship. Oftentimes, by this point, Soldiers have already been deployed abroad, making gathering the necessary forms, fingerprints and completing interviews nearly impossible. This rule was struck down by a federal judge in the summer of 2020, ordering the DoD to certify service within 30 days. However, the damage had already been done to thousands of servicemembers and the backlog of applications had begun.

USCIS and the Basic Training Initiative

A program called the Basic Training Initiative, run by USCIS, was created to provide support to servicemembers who had just enlisted. Many Soldiers could start their naturalization process right away so they could become citizens as soon as they finished basic training. However, the mandatory wait times had repercussions for this program, making it useless and forcing the USCIS to terminate it.

Though unrelated to the mandatory wait times, many USCIS offices abroad closed. The number of offices where Soldiers could complete their naturalization outside the country went from 23 to 4, leaving offices only in South Korea, Japan, Germany and Italy. Therefore, not only is it impossible to complete naturalization during boot camp, but it just got a lot harder to go through the process with USCIS when you’re deployed.

Honorable Service isn’t a Guarantee

Finishing the application process is only the first hurdle to crossing the citizenship finish line. Between 2016 and 2019, it was found that the USCIS was denying military citizenship applications at a far greater rate than civilian applications. In fact, about 20% of military applications were denied, whereas civilian applications saw a denial rate of about half that. Many of these military denials were based on a failure to demonstrate good moral character. The ACLU found a strikingly larger rate of denial for military applications based on failure to show good moral character than for civilian applications. The organization points to a larger push by the Trump administration to slow naturalization as the cause. In fact, starting in 2020, the denial rate for military applications dramatically decreased, dropping to 8%

The MAVNI Bait and Switch

MAVNI is a military program that allowed non-citizens who aren’t legal permanent residents to apply for citizenship immediately upon entering the military if they had critical skills the military needed. However, during the Obama administration, new vetting requirements were implemented that were so stringent that the program all but stopped recruiting new servicemembers. Later, the Trump administration ended the program entirely by preventing Soldiers from qualifying for MAVNI positions. Therefore, many servicemembers who had enrolled while MAVNI was still active found themselves stuck, unable to deploy or apply for citizenship.

Though a few of these restrictions have been eliminated, others remain in place. There is currently a huge backlog due to these actions that has been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. All of these factors are making military naturalization ever more difficult, which stands against the ideals we stand for in honoring our Soldiers. Gaining citizenship through military service is an important recognition for the servicemembers who sacrifice everything for our country.

Made possible with support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

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