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On This Veterans Day...

November 11, 2020 (9 min read)

FWD.US, Oct. 28, 2020

Immigrants Serving in the Military Have Earned Their Citizenship - Their Path to Naturalization Should Be Clear

President-elect Biden and Congress can restore a fair path to citizenship for immigrants who serve

"This Veteran’s Day, only one week after the 2020 presidential election, we recognize the incredible contributions of immigrants to America’s military since our nation's founding, and detail how the tradition of allowing immigrant service members to earn full access to American citizenship for their service has been restricted in the past few years, and what a Biden Administration can do to make this right.

Next year, the Biden Administration and the 117th Congress have an opportunity to restore and strengthen that pathway, ensuring that the service and sacrifices of immigrant service members can be fully acknowledged, and that the U.S. military can fully benefit from their enormous contributions. Priority changes include:

  • Reinstating and bolstering the Basic Training Initiative to promote naturalization for enlistees
  • Reinstating the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, clearing backlogs that hurt our country and hinder our intelligence services
  • Restoring and accelerating timely processing so all individuals who are eligible to naturalize can
  • Waiving penalties for soldiers who fell out of status while waiting for the government to process their orders
Immigration law requires the [naturalization] process to be expedited for service members...after one year of honorable service, or...immediately if they serve during a designated 'period of hostilities'

America’s long history of granting citizenship for military service

Immigrants have played a significant role in every major American military conflict, beginning with the American Revolution. Alexander Hamilton, for one, led Americans against the British at the final battle of Yorktown, and established the Coast Guard when the war was won. More than a fifth of Union soldiers that fought in the Civil War were born overseas, and a fifth of the U.S. Army in World War I was made up of immigrant service members. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have fought for America in both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and all other conflicts to the present day.

In recognition of immigrant service member’s patriotism and sacrifice alongside U.S. citizen service members, and to entice new recruits, the newly independent States began the now well-established tradition of granting citizenship to immigrants who served during war and times of conflict, a tradition we should be proud of and one that continues today. Immigration law requires the process to be expedited for service members, allowing them to naturalize after one year of honorable service, or to do so immediately if they serve during a designated “period of hostilities,” such as the War on Terrorism (which began on September 11, 2001 and continues today).

While military naturalizations represent a small part of all naturalizations granted each year – less than 1% annually since 2000 – the tradition of allowing immigrant service members to earn citizenship remains a central value of our historic responsibility for all individuals who serve in the U.S. military, no matter their origin or national background. Over the last century, military service has provided a pathway to American citizenship for more than 760,000 immigrant service members, including more than 260,000 since 1960.

Unfortunately, the pathway for accessing the citizenship that they have earned has become prohibitively difficult for many who served under the Trump Administration’s restrictions.

The annual number of naturalizations performed for service members has decreased by nearly 58% since 2016

Naturalizations for service members have declined

Over the last four years, naturalizations for service members have declined dramatically, despite overall naturalizations increasing and a substantial backlog of pending applications.

The annual number of naturalizations performed for service members has decreased by nearly 58% since 2016, even while the total number of naturalizations — military and civilian — increased by more than 10%. USCIS completed only 3,760 military naturalizations in 2019, the smallest number in 20 years. For comparison, USCIS completed 11,230 military naturalizations in 2010.

The drop is in part because fewer applications are being submitted since 2017, compared to the earlier part of the decade. The number of naturalization applications suddenly decreased at the beginning of FY18, after several years of stability. At the same time, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has been processing fewer applications, despite an already sizable backlog.

Since 2017, USCIS has also been denying military naturalization applications at higher rates, as much as twice more regularly. Meanwhile, denial rates for civilian applications have stayed relatively consistent.

While fluctuations in naturalization levels are normal, these stark, concurrent drops suggest that beginning in early 2017, the Trump Administration’s policies drove a significant reduction in the number of service members who were allowed to become citizens, despite their having earned citizenship via their service.

Congress and the incoming Biden Administration should reinstate and expand valuable programs like the Basic Training Initiative.

New Administration and Congress can address policies that have obstructed and slowed naturalizations

In October 2017, The Trump Administration imposed new requirements and restrictions for service members, including minimum service requirements that must be fulfilled before soldiers can naturalize. While the law provides service members an expedited path, the Trump Administration required at least 6 months of active service before proper paperwork can be issued, preventing immediate naturalization and making it logistically impossible for enlistees to finish the process before being deployed abroad. At the end of September 2020, a district court judge determined the policy violated immigration law and ordered it ended.

But significant damage has been done. The minimum wait time policy forced the closure of the Basic Training Initiative, a program that provided staff and resources on U.S. Army bases to help recruits complete the naturalization process during basic training and before deployment abroad. Now that those policies have been struck down, Congress and the incoming Biden Administration should reinstate and expand valuable programs like the Basic Training Initiative.

Those individuals seeking to naturalize through military service also faced growing backlogs and slowdowns in administrative processing under the Trump Administration. USCIS maintains they have no time limit for processing naturalization applications, with some applicants waiting years. USCIS reports more than 3,600 pending military naturalization applications as of March 31, 2020, reduced from a high of more than 6,000 in FY19.

The Military Personnel Citizenship Processing Act of 2008 previously required USCIS to process applications for military naturalization within six months, or to notify the applicant of the reasons for the delay; however, Congress let that law “sunset” more than five years ago. The 117th Congress should reinstate that policy and provide oversight and resources for USCIS to clear backlogs.

MAVNI suspension has left soldiers in limbo, denied citizenship and at risk of losing status

Service members who enlisted through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program have faced particular difficulties. This program allowed foreign-born individuals who are not U.S. permanent residents, including DACA recipients and international graduates of U.S. colleges and universities, to enlist if they have skills the military urgently needs, such as medical and language skills. In turn, MAVNI program enrollees were eligible to earn citizenship.

The Obama Administration initially suspended MAVNI in 2016, but thousands of enlisted recruits were still waiting to be deployed. Those recruits — including medical experts seeking to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic — have since been stuck in place, waiting years for extensive background checks to finish. More than 500 recruits were discharged without explanation, closing off their path to citizenship; while the Trump Administration claimed that practice has ended, other recruits who are still stuck waiting risk losing their legal status while they wait for the military to act.

Congress has supported this program before, voting to increase the number of spots available for MAVNI recruits. Elected leaders should find commonsense solutions and reinstate the program, while making sure those who have lapsed in status while waiting for orders from the government are not unfairly penalized.

Rapid naturalization allows immigrant service members to more fully contribute while also strengthening our national security, and provides safety and certainty for their families.

Naturalization protects immigrant service members with U.S. citizenship earned through service

Immigrants strengthen America’s military. They have lower attrition rates than citizen recruits, for one, and more than 700 immigrants have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest decoration for military valor. They contribute a tremendous diversity of thought, language, experience, and skill that makes the military more effective in its mission.

Rapid naturalization allows immigrant service members to more fully contribute while also strengthening our national security, and provides safety and certainty for their families. For example, U.S. citizenship is generally required to serve as an officer and to receive a security clearance. Naturalization also protects service members from changes in immigration policy and the risk of deportation. Programs like basic training initiatives and MAVNI, which provide access to American citizenship, are also valuable recruiting tools that can help address recruiting shortages in the Armed Forces.

On the other hand, barriers to naturalization prevent service-members and veterans from accessing critical benefits like drivers’ licenses and public services, and make it exceedingly difficult for immigrants to abide by 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, destabilizing their lives and those of their families and communities.

Time for Congress to act

The U.S. Armed Forces have an immense global presence. The diversity of the U.S. military strengthens its engagement with the rest of the world and reflects the American public they serve. The Armed Forces and American civilians depend on immigrants who enlist to risk and sacrifice for their adopted country. The new Biden Administration and Congress must work together to restore a full and fair pathway to citizenship for immigrant service members, who have earned it serving our country alongside citizen service members."