There was a time not so long ago when immigrants could enlist in the military and earn expedited U.S. citizenship. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is leading a crusade to bring that back.
In a report sent to the Democratic caucus on Tuesday, Duckworth lays out the history of a handful of policies administrations have used to grant citizenship to immigrant service members, including their suspension and degradation toward the end of the Obama administration and into Donald Trump’s term, when stories of recruits in limbo and deported veterans made national headlines.
“Yet, despite these efforts, there are still members of the U.S. Armed Forces that honorably serve and fight in combat overseas only to be discharged without receiving citizenship,” according to the report. “Adding insult to injury, immigrant Veterans can, and have been, deported by the same Nation they took an oath to defend.”
Duckworth sent a letter to President Joe Biden’s office on inauguration day, asking that he take a look at the issue of veteran immigration and deportation. Congress will also consider the issue Wednesday, during a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As complicated as the U.S. immigration system itself, a web of programs has allowed legal U.S. residents to enlist and earn their citizenship, as well as prevent deportation of their non-citizen spouses and family members.
That started to come apart in 2016, when the Obama administration suspended the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, over concerns that immigrants’ foreign ties were not being investigated thoroughly.
The plan was to develop an enhanced screening protocol, but in 2017, the Trump administration suspended MAVNI indefinitely, while thousands of recruits were waiting to ship to or were in basic training, ending not only their promise of citizenship, but putting some in a position to be deported.
More than 5,000 immigrants were recruited into the program in 2016, and an estimated 10,000 were serving as of 2018, according to the Associated Press. The vast majority went into the Army, but some also went to the other military branches.
At the same time, the administration rolled out new policies that made it harder for those already serving to complete their citizenship, including getting rid of a program that allowed recruits to complete the naturalization process when they graduated from one of three Army basic training sites.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services then closed 13 of 20 international field offices that had been tasked with supporting immigrants serving abroad through their naturalization processes.
These measures only exacerbated an issue the federal government had yet to confront for decades: that immigrant recruits often mistakenly assumed that citizenship came automatically with the oath of enlistment, or that the naturalization process was so poorly explained and administered that they never completed the citizenship process.
“Although DoD and USCIS have tried to modernize the naturalization process in the past, both agencies have failed to ensure that every immigrant servicemember who wants to naturalize can attain citizenship,” according to the report. “In such an instance, a servicemember mistakenly believed he received citizenship upon enlisting in the U.S. Army.”
At the same time, according to research, hundreds of non-citizen veterans were deported, and the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents handling those cases did not consider military service as a mitigating factor, despite policy guidance requiring them to.
Duckworth’s report recommends reinstating MAVNI, reestablishing basic training naturalization programs and reopening overseas USCIS offices, in addition to creating a DoD, Homeland Security and VA task force to identify deported veterans, repatriate them and enroll them in VA services.
“The U.S. Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs must actively coordinate outreach efforts to ensure that noncitizens understand the naturalization process and are able to actually move forward with the process to become American citizens,” the report concludes.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.