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Immigrants in the US Armed Forces

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Updated September 17, 2013

Immigrants serving in the United States military has deep historical roots. Non citizens have fought in and with the U. S. Armed forces since the Revolutionary War. According to One America, nationally, each year around 8,000 non-citizens enlist in the military.

While individuals are paid for their service in the United States military, the decision join the military is entirely voluntary. Each branch of the services has different requirements for enlistment, but there are some standard requirements that all the branches hold to. Among these requirements is that only individuals who are U.S. citizens can become commissioned officers in the United States military. Those who are considered US citizens also include citizens of Puerto Rico, the Northern Marianas Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Non-citizens are eligible to enlist in the military but can not be commissioned.

A non-citizen must meet certain requirements to be eligible to join the military. The must have an Alien Registration Receipt Card (stamped I-94 or I-551 Green card/INS Form 1-551) as well as a bona fide residence established with an established a record of the U.S. as their home. If the non-citizens comes from countries with a reputation of hostility towards the U.S, they may require a waiver. The federal government cannot petition on behalf of an illegal immigrant so that they can obtain legal status and be able to enlist in the military. In order for an immigrant to join the United States military, they must first go through the immigration process of the USCIS (previously known as the INS) and then and then begin the enlisting process. Another requirement is that the Green Card and/or visa if the immigrant desiring to join the military must be valid for the entire period of their enlistment. Undocumented immigrants may not enlist in the U.S. military.

President Obama is trying to pass legislation that will allow illegal immigrants to obtain their citizenship if they serve in the military. The Obama administration announced its deferred action program in June of 2012 and has now accepted more than 150,000 undocumented young people into the program allowing them to obtain jobs. Eligibility for the policy roughly aligns with the framework for the Dream Act, a decade-old bill that would allow young undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children -- often called Dreamers -- to become citizens if they meet certain criteria.

The Dream Act has a specific provision for military service in that dreamers could either go to college or join the military in order to benefit from the Dream Act. Although immigrants are eligible for deferred action if they have been honorably discharged from the military, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to join up, meaning the policy would only apply if they had already served.

Individuals who enlist in the military and are non-citizens, are limited to one service term. If non-citizens become U.S. citizens then they are permitted to reenlist. For an immigrant who joined the US. military, once they are in active duty status in the military, the process of going from a non-citizen to U.S. citizen can be expedited. Military services and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services have worked together to streamline the citizenship application process for service members. In July 2002, the President issued an executive order that made non citizen members of the armed forces eligible for expedited US citizenship. Revisions in the US citizenship law in 2004 have allowed USCIS to conduct naturalization interviews and ceremonies for foreign-born US armed forces members serving at military bases abroad. According to USCIS data from April 2008, more than 5,050 foreign-born service members have become citizens during overseas military naturalization ceremonies while on active duty in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Kenya, as well as in the Pacific aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. Since September 2001, USCIS has naturalized more than 37,250 foreign-born members of the armed forces and granted posthumous citizenship to 111 service members.

According to February 2008 data from the Department of Defense, more than 65,000 immigrants (non citizens and naturalized citizens) were serving on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces. This represents approximately 5% of all active-duty personnel. Nationally, each year around 8,000 non citizens enlist in the military. The top two countries of origin for foreign-born military personnel in the U.S. are the Philippines and Mexico, with nearly 11 percent of those serving in the armed forces being of Hispanic origin.

The military benefits greatly from the service of its foreign-born. Non citizen recruits offer greater racial, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity than citizen recruits. This diversity is particularly valuable given the military's increasingly global agenda. Additionally, statistics show that: Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic non citizens who have served for at least 3 months are nearly 10 percent less likely to leave the service than white citizens. Non-citizens who have served for at least 36 months are 9 to 20 percent less likely to leave the service than white citizens.

sources: Migration Information Source, One America with Justice for All, The White House, Pres. Barack Obama

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