Nov 11, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The immigrants who have fought for American freedom

Adapted from Migration Policy Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals

Immigrants have helped protect America through U.S. military service throughout most of the nation's history. But it's becoming harder for non-citizens to enlist — and to gain citizenship after their service.

The big picture: 2.4 million of the nation's veterans were born outside the U.S. or are children of immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute — 13% of the overall veteran population.

  • The latest: Today, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acting director Ken Cuccinelli will conduct a special Veterans Day naturalization ceremony. The 12 service members and veterans attaining citizenship join more than 760,000 who have become citizens through military service in the past century, according to MPI.

By the numbers: 17% of immigrant veterans came from Mexico, while another 17% came from the Philippines. In addition, 5% are from Germany, 4% from Colombia and 4% from the United Kingdom, according to MPI.

  • Veterans who served in the military before becoming U.S. citizens are likely to have served longer than their citizen counterparts, according to another MPI study.

Legal permanent residents, refugees, temporary visa holders and even DACA recipients have enlisted to serve in the U.S. military, as well as first-generation citizens whose parents came from other places.

  • Almost 300 foreign-born service members gave their lives in combat between September 2001 and 2013, according to MPI.

But over the past several years — under Barack Obama and now President Trump — it's become harder for non-citizens to enlist, and for immigrant veterans to become citizens.

  • Military members were denied citizenship at a higher rate than civilians this year, according to McClatchy. The number of service members who have applied for citizenship also fell.
  • Since 2016, the Department of Defense has added more strict vetting requirements for non-citizens who wish to enlist through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, out of concerns for national security. They have also added requirements for obtaining expedited citizenship through military service.
  • Last year, the Army discharged more than 500 immigrants who were recruited through MANVI, the AP reported. The program was created to recruit non-citizens with needed language and health care skills, but has been effectively frozen.
    • More than a thousand of the program's recruits have had visas and legal status expire while waiting for a background check as of May 2017 — putting them in jeopardy of deportation, according to MPI.
  • Immigrants are being denied enlistment for "arbitrary reasons," Muzaffar Chishti, director of MPI's NYU School of Law location, told Axios. "There doesn’t seem to be a coherent security-based reason to deny people. There are generalized suspicions.”

Even after serving in the military, some immigrant service members can be subject to deportation if convicted of crimes.

  • Marine Corps veteran Jose Segovia-Benitez made headlines last month after being deported from the U.S. —  his home since age 3 — to his native El Salvador because of felony convictions, the Orange County Register reported. He had served two tours in Iraq.
  • Some of his supporters say that despite the convictions, the deportation was unfair given his service and the the brain injury he received while overseas, according to the Register.
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