For some immigrants, military service has long been an attractive option, because of the prospect of earning U.S. citizenship. Noncitizens who enlist in the military may get benefits like expedited naturalization. But, it appears this outcome is becoming less certain, as more and more immigrants in the armed forces see their citizenship applications denied.
Tara Copp has been following the story for McClatchy, where she’s the military and veterans affairs reporter in the Washington bureau.
“We’ve been watching this for almost two years now,” Copp says. “Basically, little procedural changes were made that have now had a big impact on service members’ ability to become naturalized.”
In particular, the level of officer that had to approve a service member’s certificate of honorable service was bumped up to colonel in 2017.
“If you’re in Washington, D.C., that doesn’t sound like a big thing because there are colonels literally everywhere in the Pentagon. But if you’re in one of these outlier posts and you’re a low-ranking enlistee, it is really difficult to find a colonel to sign your papers,” Copp says.
Responses to the changes in immigrant service members’ ability to become citizens vary.
“If you look at some of the more progressive analysts who have been watching this, this has been a cultural decision to make it harder for immigrants to join the military, just as the administration is making it harder for immigrants to apply for asylum and to come to the U.S. For others, it seems like a common sense approach to increasing the amount of background checks and vetting that these applicants need,” Copp says.
Enlistees have been left in limbo.
“We’re talking hundreds of potential soldiers, sailors, airmen, who came to the U.S. under legal terms… and have been waiting up to three years now to be able to serve,” Copp says. “The U.S. has had a long tradition of expedited citizenship through military service and it’s coming as a shock for these service members that this no longer seems to be the case.”
In turn, the number of immigrants applying for naturalization has plummeted.
“There were more than 3,000 who applied in the very first quarter of Trump’s term in office… there were 648 in this most recent quarter, a 79% drop,” Copp says.
What’s happening to military immigrants may be at odds with the president’s recent moves on immigration policy.
“Even yesterday, when the White House was rolling out its immigration plan, the president was saying he wants to change things to a merit-based system,” Copp says. “Well, what greater merit is there than someone who’s willing to lay down their life for the country in order to become a citizen?”
Written by Brooke Reaves