Immigrants Have Always Belonged In The U.S. Military

Our country should not make it difficult for them to serve.
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Whatever your take on the recent controversy around the treatment of Gold Star families, it’s clear the Americans honor the commitment and sacrifice of the people who serve our country in the military. Last week, The Washington Post and Mic reported that the U.S. Army will for the time being stop enlisting legal permanent residents in the Army Reserve and National Guard. The Hill and others reported other policies that will make it harder for immigrants to serve in the military and gain citizenship when they do. These developments are an unfortunate rejection of our longstanding history of welcoming immigrants who want to serve their county.

Before the founding of the United States, during the Revolutionary War, Irish and German immigrants fought for America (and sometimes the British) at times in all-Irish and all-German battalions. They also fought on both sides in the Civil War. By the early 1900s, immigrants had begun to come from Southern and Eastern Europe. Those immigrants, including Italians and Eastern European Jews, served in both World Wars. And German Jews used their language skills to serve as interrogators in the Army during the second world War. During World War II, Mexicans, particularly from border states, came to the United States to serve in the US military. And Mexicans today continue to make up a substantial share of the foreign-born population of the U.S. military.

Foreign-born partipation in the military is not only a historical phenomenon. They are a critical part of our military today.

According to Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer and immigration lawyer, “Without the contributions of immigrants, the military could not meet its recruiting goals and could not fill its need for foreign-language translators, interpreters, and cultural experts.” She finds that by 2009 about 8% of the active-duty military forces were foreign born, most of them naturalized citizens. She also notes that even undocumented immigrants are required to register with the Selective Service when they turn 18. Research by the Center for Naval Analysis has also found that noncitizens have longer military careers than citizens perhaps because the military offers fairer treatment than other parts of American society, encouraging immigrants to pursue advancement within the military. The researchers suggest that immigrants are “one overlooked source of military manpower.” Immigrants help the military fill key positions requiring specialized language skills, but also medical skills.

In my current research, I am interviewing immigrants and children of immigrants who have served in the military. One of them, a man born in Pakistan, enlisted in the Army and after coming to the U.S. and obtaining a green card. He emphasizes that his patriotism is based on his choice to live in and serve the United States through the military. He chose this country and has made roots here. He became a citizen. He says he did all this for his kids. Now he and his family feel they belong in the United States.

The United States has a long tradition of enlisting immigrants. Immigrants make up an important part of the U.S. military, and have since the formation of the United States. Our country should not make it difficult for them to serve. Without immigrants, the military will have a difficult time meeting its recruitment goals and filling key positions requiring linguistic and medical skills. The turn away from immigrants in the military violates a long-held value in the United States that immigrants can become Americans through military service.

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