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The U.S. Is Denying Citizenship to Service Members at an Unprecedented Rate

Non-citizens in the military are now denied citizenship more frequently than their civilian counterparts. The Department of Defense appears to be behind the shift.
U.S. Army Private First Class Sung Kuyn Chang is sworn in with other members of the armed forces to become new U.S. citizens during a 2010 naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Fairfax, Virginia.

U.S. Army Private First Class Sung Kuyn Chang is sworn in with other members of the armed forces to become new U.S. citizens during a 2010 naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Fairfax, Virginia.

United States immigration authorities are denying military service member applications for citizenship at a higher rate than their civilian counterparts, newly released data from the Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) shows. Immigrant rights advocates are calling on elected officials to overcome partisan impasses to remedy what appears to be the penalization of immigrants serving in the U.S. armed forces—particularly at a time when the Department of Defense is failing to meet its voluntary recruitment goals.

The USCIS data shows that the agency denied 16.6 percent of military citizenship applications in the last three months of 2018, over 5 percent more than civilian applications. Prior to his administration, and in the first few quarters of the Donald Trump presidency, military citizenship application acceptances were higher than their civilian counterparts. Experts say that, amid Trump's attempts to bar immigrants of all stripes from legally remaining in the U.S., the data shows that non-citizen service member applications have faced an increased degree of scrutiny.

There were 24,000 non-citizens on active duty in 2012, the most recent year for which data was available, according to Department of Defense figures cited in a National Immigration Forum advocacy group report. The military denial rate was 4 percent lower than the civilian rate at the start of the Trump presidency, according to an analysis of previous quarters' statistics by The Hill.

A growing number of veterans deported from the U.S. are living in overcrowded migrant shelters in Tijuana and elsewhere. The American Civil Liberties Union estimated that 230 veterans were deported in 2016 under the administration of President Barack Obama. Sources familiar with the subject say that the number has increased, but Pacific Standard could not immediately quantify the present number of Trump administration military deportees.

The Department of Defense did not respond to Pacific Standard's request for comment.

USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins writes that the agency "has long recognized the important sacrifices made by our nation's service members, veterans, enlistees, and their families, and continues to have a robust military outreach program to ensure they have access to accurate information about immigration services and benefits. USCIS will continue to support non-citizens who are serving, or who have served, in the U.S. armed forces and are eligible to apply for naturalization under special provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act."*

Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, says that the treatment of immigrant service members is one of the many ways in which the Trump administration seems to have upended the traditional commitments of prior administrations. "Under previous administrations, normally immigrants who served were expedited—they were allowed to become U.S. citizens as a matter of an earned right," he says. "What we're seeing now is just total discriminatory behavior by this current administration—against all immigrants, but singling out immigrants who have served for harsher treatment is just beyond the pale of basic human decency and American values."

"It's totally disgraceful conduct on the part of the [USCIS]. It goes against everything America stands for," Garcia adds. "For them to be turned down at higher number is just deplorable."

Garcia will travel to Washington, D.C., this week, where he plans to meet with Department of Defense officials. "We are actually investigating this," he says. "We're trying to find the memo or email that led to this discriminatory treatment against veterans."

It remains to be seen whether Garcia's meeting with department officials will yield more information on the policies that have resulted in the decline in service member citizenship application approvals. But others believe the decline can be traced to a Department of Defense policy from the first year of the Trump presidency.

"The drop in naturalizations of military service members and increase in the denial rate of military naturalizations comes after the Department of Defense issued new policy changes on October 13th, 2017, to the naturalization process for military service members, which makes it harder for them to naturalize," explains Christian Penichet-Paul, policy and advocacy manager at the National Immigration Forum, a non-profit advocacy group.

"We must ensure that immigrants in the military have access and are informed about their eligibility for naturalization, especially at a time when we need to meet our military's recruitment goals," Penichet-Paul adds.

There are several attempts in Congress to push for legislation that would help service members and veterans seeking citizenship and that would help to return deported service members to the U.S. But Garcia says that he is "not very optimistic" that there will be any headway in the foreseeable future on legislation that would actually help service members seeking citizenship. One such bill, H.R. 1078 the "Repatriate Our Patriots Act," introduced by Texan Democratic Representative Vicente Gonzalez, was brought forward in February and has yet to clear committee.

"Nothing happens in Congress in an election year," Garcia says. There's no hope for any meaningful developments "on something as controversial as immigration reform even if it has to do with veterans, which is a shame."

Garcia says that his organization had been working together with White House officials on compromise legislation that would have helped to guarantee legal status for some of the administration's targeted immigrant communities but that the Trump administration's recent announcement of its immigration proposal revealed that those discussions had ultimately not been reflected in the end result.

Lawrence G. Romo, commander of the American GI Forum, a Congressionally chartered organization representing the interests of Mexican-American and other Latino-American veterans, underlined that the U.S. cannot afford to discourage enlistment. "I think it's a matter of reprioritizing," he says. "We need all hands on deck. We need to encourage immigrants to enlist."

For the first time in over a decade, the Army fell short of its voluntary recruitment goals in 2018 by about 6,500 recruits, according to an article published in U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes. The article, from September, noted that the shortage was particularly alarming amid emerging threats from the U.S.'s global adversaries. The U.S. faces the possibility of conflagrations around the globe, particularly amid the Trump administration's continued saber-rattling at Iran and Venezuela.

Romo has been advocating for deported veterans to be returned to the U.S. and believes that there would be greater support for service members and veterans to obtain citizenship if the public were more aware of the obstacles they are facing under the Trump administration. "We need to inform the public. Most of the public are supportive of our military but they don't know they've been deported," he says.

*Update—May 23rd, 2019: This article has been updated to include a response from USCIS.