As we remember our nation’s fallen members of the Armed Forces, we cannot overlook the significant contributions of the foreign-born to our military efforts. Especially in the post-9/11 world, foreign-born troops and support staff have played a vital role in the military’s ability to meet its recruitment goals and maintain preparedness.
The most recent data readily available appear to be from 2009, when approximately 12 percent of the U.S. military were non-citizens among a total of nearly 115,000 foreign-born troops. The foreign-born population includes many naturalized U.S. citizens, and recent legislative changes have accelerated the rate at which those who serve in the U.S. military can qualify for naturalization. Among that 12 percent of non-citizens are lawful permanent residents (Green Card holders) as well as undocumented immigrants.
It is frequently observed that foreign-born individuals have been a key part of the U.S. military since the country’s earliest days, and they continue to play that role today in the open-ended Global War on Terror. Due to this designation that the U.S. is at war, all individuals who serve honorably in the U.S. military are eligible for naturalization (citizenship) under Section 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. USCIS reports that it is approving record numbers of military applicants for naturalization.
The policy landscape around these issues remains contentious. Some insist that legislation like the DREAM Act is vital both to treat fairly those undocumented youth who never had a choice in their relocation to the United States, while others counterpoint that current law permits even undocumented members of the military to gain citizenship. (A recent story concerns a young man who may have evaded U.S. military policy and enlisted despite being undocumented, and he then naturalized under Section 329. The Department of Defense is normally required to accept enlistment only from U.S. citizens, nationals, or Permanent Residents unless the Secretary of Defense determines that enlistment of an undocumented person is “vital to the national interest.”)
Other observers believe that foreign-born soldiers should be treated differently on matters beyond naturalization. A small community of individuals who were formerly Permanent Residents before being deported for offenses such as drug possession believe that their military service ought to give them greater protection under the immigration laws. Although current laws allow those who serve honorably to naturalize, those who leave military service and then make mistakes that render them deportable are no better situated than non-veterans.
All told, the place of immigrants in our military is in many ways as complicated as is the role of foreign workers in other sectors of our economy — in many cases the foreign-born take on difficult or dangerous jobs where the native workforce cannot supply all needed labor. How we choose to balance the competing needs of military preparedness and rigid immigration laws is a policy challenge that involves not only competing values but also consideration of the individual stories of those who have risked everything for their adopted country.