On Veterans Day, we thank all veterans who protected the United States and the famed unalienable rights listed on the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Among veterans, we count the service of millions of immigrants who have fought to uphold our nation’s ideals alongside citizens since the Revolutionary War. We should honor their sacrifices every day and recognize their valor. Unfortunately, noncitizen active duty military servicemembers, veterans, and families aren’t being honored these days. They are being systematically and negatively impacted by immigration policies, as outlined during a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on October 29th.
There is a common misconception that immigrant servicemembers are automatically awarded citizenship upon entering the military. The reality is that recruits must honorably serve 180 days of active duty service before they can receive a Certificate of Honorable Service (N-426), which is required to naturalize, in addition to the regular requirements for naturalization. Due to Department of Defense (DOD) policy changes, upon meeting this 180-day requirement, servicemembers struggle to find military officers willing to sign and certify the N-426. Additionally, required background checks often come back unfavorable for reasons such as “foreign ties” because family members still reside in their country of origin, which is the case with almost every applicant. Some military servicemembers have had to go as far as suing the DOD in order to advance their naturalizations.
Because naturalization is not an automatic benefit of service, there are veterans who honorably served the United States, committed a crime after returning to civilian life, and were later deported. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is meant to provide additional consideration when apprehending veterans, with a review of the veteran’s criminal history, evidence of rehabilitation, family and financial ties, employment, community service, and health. Approximately 10-15% of veterans experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can result in anger, depression, chronic pain, sleep problems, and substance abuse. However, ICE often ignores these considerations and deports veterans, forcing them to forge a new life in a country where they may have no memories or family ties. One mistake can lead to lifetime banishment, despite their service.
It is not only servicemembers and veterans themselves who suffer though. Their families do too. Many deported veterans leave behind U.S. citizen children, separating a family perhaps forever. A program called Military Parole in Place, which grants certain undocumented military family members the opportunity to apply for a green card, was rumored to be on the chopping block earlier this year. Additionally, a new policy narrowing the definition of “residence” means that certain children born to military servicemembers abroad may be denied citizenship! If servicemembers and their families meet the requirements to naturalize while abroad, they now must travel to one of only four USCIS hubs worldwide processing applications for servicemembers outside the US, which can be a logistical and financial hardship. Overall, the system creates an uphill battle to naturalization even for those who faithfully serve our country.
While there are Legal Assistance Offices in the military, they often do not have the legal expertise necessary to assist servicemembers with immigration questions. As a result of this gap in legal services, AILA stepped up to assist in 2007 with the Military Assistance Program (MAP). This unique program offers pro bono immigration assistance to active duty servicemembers and veterans who have completed service in the past two years. MAP has been flooded with over 2,300 requests for assistance from servicemembers in the past five years.
Our government must do more to support immigrants who protect our country. Their sacrifices are the same as those they trained, marched, and fought beside. By taking care of our servicemembers, we increase military readiness and morale. One simple way to address concerns is to automatically naturalize servicemembers who meet the requirements of citizenship upon their entrance into military service, as the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) granted noncitizen military personnel during World War II. We encourage you to contact your congressional representatives and advocate for that simple but immensely important change.
In the meantime, we offer our thanks to all veterans who honorably served our country, regardless of where they were born and where they now live. And we gratefully recognize all the immigration attorneys who are veterans themselves and work hard to provide peace of mind to those who now serve.