A bipartisan group of senators called on the government to review a dramatic decline in the number of noncitizens who have become naturalized for their military service.
Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) sent a letter Thursday to the Government Accountability Office asking it to review federal pathways that allow those from other countries to become U.S. citizens if they enlist in the armed forces. The U.S. has long relied on immigrant recruits to beef up the military, but the Trump administration has spent years rolling back such policies as part of the president’s broader effort to make it more difficult to enter the country.
“Despite mounting evidence showing that our nation is failing to help noncitizen veterans and service members access the citizenship they earned, there has not been a review of the effectiveness of our military naturalization policies in nearly a decade,” Duckworth, a combat veteran who served in Iraq, said in a statement to HuffPost. “Congress needs current data to better understand how we can make sure these brave men and women have the support they need throughout the naturalization process.”
The senator and her colleagues urged the GAO to investigate just how effective the government’s policies for noncitizen service members are, pointing to a dramatic reduction in the number of military naturalizations in recent years. In 2010, more than 11,200 immigrants were granted citizenship for their service, but that number shrank to about 4,100 in 2018, a reduction of about 63%.
At the same time, President Donald Trump has actively worked to restrict how and where many noncitizen military members can apply to become Americans. In 2017, the Pentagon changed a program that recruited highly trained immigrants for their language and medical skills with the promise of a fast-track to citizenship. More than 500 were abruptly discharged from the Army over a period of 12 months.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data also revealed this year that immigrants in the military are denied citizenship at a higher rate than foreign-born civilians.
And last August, the White House tightened the rules that allow the children of Americans stationed abroad to qualify for automatic citizenship.
The Washington Post notes that serving in the military has long been a celebrated way to become a U.S. citizen that serves both immigrants hoping to come to the country and the American military (around 65,000 immigrants are currently serving in the active-duty military). Congress has also passed laws to expedite the pathway to citizenship for such recruits during periods of turmoil, including after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In the letter Thursday, the senators said the recent policy changes had potentially affected how effective the government’s programs were for noncitizen service members.
“While [the Pentagon] and USCIS have made policies to help noncitizen servicemembers naturalize in the past, we urge GAO to evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives,” the group wrote, noting there hasn’t been a review of the program since 2010.
Duckworth visited a group of veterans who were deported last November in Mexico, saying that, although the former service members were “Americans all but on paper,” many “fell through the cracks” and had been punished when they should have been rewarded.
“I am ashamed of and heartbroken by how our nation is treating the deported Veterans I met with,” Duckworth said at the time. “I refuse to let them believe that everyone in government has forsaken them, and I want them to know that I haven’t — which is why I spent this Veterans Day at that makeshift refuge in Mexico, recognizing the sacrifices they made for the country they love.”
The lawmaker echoed those sentiments Thursday, saying she would “keep working to make sure no one willing to wear our uniform is deported by the same nation they sacrificed to defend.”