No, the military isn’t recruiting illegal immigrants

Immigrants not in the country legally would not be eligible for the program.
Jeff Schogol Avatar
Naturalization Ceremony
A U.S. Marine recites the Pledge of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony hosted at the Camp Foster Community Center on Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, Nov. 14, 2023. (Cpl. Jonathan Beauchamp/U.S. Marine Corps)

Two members of Congress have introduced a bill that would help vetted and qualified immigrants who serve in the U.S. military become American citizens.

The program would not be open to immigrants who are in the country illegally or on a deportation list, nor would it offer immunity to illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, a congressional staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity told Task & Purpose. All military recruits would have to continue to be U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents or hail from three tiny Pacific island nations with long ties to the U.S. 

The bill would offer immigrants who are already headed towards naturalization an expedited path to becoming U.S. citizens. It would not automatically grant citizenship to immigrants who serve in the military, said the staffer, who was not authorized to speak to the media.

Rep. Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.) and John James (R-Mich.) are sponsoring the “Courage to Serve Act,” which would not only help immigrants looking for work but also address the military’s recruiting crisis, a news release from Ryan’s office says.

“If folks have the courage to raise their right hand, swear an oath to protect and defend this nation, and put their lives on the line, then they sure as hell deserve the opportunity to become an American citizen,” Ryan said in the news release.

The bill would create a pilot program open to immigrants who successfully complete FBI and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services background checks, who are admissible to the United States and eligible to serve in the military, the news release says.

Subscribe to Task & Purpose today. Get the latest military news and culture in your inbox daily.

Immigrants’ applications would be expedited after three years of honorable military service, one year in an active-duty zone, or 30 days in a designated combat zone, according to James’ office. The Department of Homeland Security would have discretion about what information immigrants would be required to submit to apply for the pilot program.

Naturalization Ceremony
A U.S. Marine recites the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony hosted at the Camp Foster Community Center on Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, Nov. 14, 2023. (Cpl. Jonathan Beauchamp/U.S. Marine Corps)

The bill comes as the military faces ongoing recruiting challenges. The Army, Navy, and Air Force all missed their Fiscal Year 2023 recruiting goals by 10,000 soldiers, 6,000 sailors, and 2,700 airmen respectively. For the Air Force, it marked the first time since 1999 that the service had failed to meet its recruiting goal, although the department exceeded its foal for new Space Force Guardians.

The Army has been hit particularly hard by the recruiting crisis. In Fiscal Year 2022, it fell 15,000 soldiers short of its recruiting goal of 60,000, a 25% shortfall.

“To combat this concerning trend and give heroic and America-loving immigrants a chance to gain citizenship, I am proud to sponsor the Courage to Serve Act,” James said in the news release. “Immigration is both an economic and moral imperative, and giving specific America-loving immigrants who want to serve the country the chance to become citizens is a no-brainer. Some of the heroes Pat and I served with in Iraq were immigrants, and I can’t think of a more deserving person to become an American citizen than immigrants who are willing to serve in our military.” 

However, a previous Defense Department effort that offered a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who served in the military did not end well. From 2008 to 2017 the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program accepted 10,000 non-citizens with critical skills who spoke Chinese, Dari, Farsi, and Russian, and other valuable languages.

But the program was ultimately terminated after the Pentagon determined that recruits could have connections to foreign intelligence services or become insider threats. Ji Chaoqun, who joined the Army Reserve through the MAVNI program, was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2023 after being convicted of spying for China.

Other efforts to speed the path of immigrants who join the U.S. military towards American citizenship have been more successful. More than 170,000 U.S. military service members have been naturalized since 2002, including 12,140 in Fiscal Year 2023, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

People who enlist in the U.S. military are required to be U.S. citizens, American nationals, lawful permanent residents, or from a country that has entered into a  Compact of Free Association with the United States, said Army Ma. Grace Geiger, a Pentagon spokeswoman. The Compact of Free Association applies to citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Republic of Palau, all island nations in the Pacific.

“Non-citizen accessions are an important part of the makeup of the military, and the Naturalization at Basic Training program has proven to be a strong recruiting tool,” Geiger told Task & Purpose.

The Army was the first military branch to adopt the program, under which participants begin the process of applying for citizenship before starting their military training, and they become citizens by the time they graduate.

“Since the inception of the Naturalization at Basic Training program, approximately 4,000 Service members have been naturalized in recognition of their contributions and sacrifice,” Geiger said.

One of those service members is Airman 1st Class Natalia Laziuk, who graduated from Basic Military Training in April 2023.

“I will always be grateful for every opportunity I have here in the best country of the world,” Laziuk, who came to the United States from Russia, said in an Air Force news release.

 The latest on Task & Purpose

  • The Air Force wants retirees to help fill gaps in the service
  • Navy allows sailors to put hands in pockets as hell freezes over
  • The Army’s next-gen combat helmet is now arriving with soldiers
  • Navy now allows sailors to wear leggings under PT shorts
  • Legendary Marine Scout Sniper Chuck Mawhinney dies at age 75