Immigrants in the Military: Unsung Heroes | Global Refuge

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News // Immigration and Asylum

Unsung Heroes: Immigrants in the U.S. Military

Portrait of Krish O’Mara Vignarajah

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah

November 10, 2023

Veterans Day is a solemn occasion to honor the brave souls who have donned the uniform in defense of our nation and its highest ideals. We are eternally indebted to these men and women who have so selflessly served with honor and courage. Yet, while it is a day brimming with deep national pride, it also beckons us to reflect on a segment of veterans who have historically been overlooked: our immigrant service members, whose sacrifice doesn’t always equate to citizenship.

An estimated 700,000 foreign-born veterans call this country home, while approximately 45,000 immigrants are currently defending our freedoms as members of the armed forces. Their stories are as diverse as the roles they fill — from interpreters and cultural experts to frontline combatants and shapers of military policy at the highest levels. Notably, General John Shalikashvili, an immigrant from Poland, ascended to one of the most prestigious roles in the U.S. military as President Clinton’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The value of immigrant military service is further underscored by a stunning statistic: one in five recipients of the Medal of Honor, the highest military award for valor, are immigrants.

Their contributions are critical at a time when our nation’s armed forces face a glaring talent chasm that threatens our defense readiness. Over the past year, the Air Force, Army, and Navy have faced daunting recruiting shortfalls. With 77% of young Americans deemed ineligible for military service due to reasons ranging from inadequate education to health issues, the military has increasingly turned to immigrants to bridge this gap.

Challenges facing immigrants in the military

However, the trumpet of gratitude and recognition does not blow fervently enough. A shadow looms over the contributions of these patriots as they grapple with convoluted paths to citizenship and the ominous specter of deportation.

Each year, approximately 5,000-7,000 non-citizens join the armed forces, enabling them to become U.S. citizens quicker than non-military immigrants. However, a UC Law San Francisco study reported that since 2016, there has been a historic drop in military naturalizations due to stalled citizenship applications and longer wait times for immigration proceedings.

Such bureaucratic quicksand inhibits the realization of the American Dream for many of these heroes, limiting their access to vital benefits, obstructing family reunifications, and impeding their ability to fully participate in the democracy they valiantly defend.

Missing out on these privileges pales in comparison, however, to the threat of removal from the country they served, often for non-violent offenses. Post-1997, with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, such deportations became more frequent. Troublingly, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot definitively state the number of deported veterans due to a lack of adherence to their own tracking protocols. Humanitarian groups say they are aware of approximately 400 deported veterans currently seeking to return to the country they served.

Solutions for foreign-born veterans and immigrants in the military

However, not all is bleak. The Biden administration, recognizing the unjust treatment of immigrant veterans, initiated a program in 2021 to facilitate their return to the U.S., with 75 veterans reuniting with their families as of this year. The effort is a commendable start, but is subject to the whims of future administrations who may not be so inclined to continue it.

A more permanent solution to address deportations and ease barriers to citizenship is the Veteran Service Recognition Act. The bill, originally introduced and passed by the House of Representatives in 2022, would allow non-citizen service members to apply for naturalization during basic training, establish a review process for those who are in removal proceedings, and provide an opportunity for non-citizen veterans who have been removed or ordered removed, and who have not been convicted of serious crimes, to obtain legal permanent resident status.

Not to be forgotten are the thousands of Afghans who find themselves in legal limbo after being evacuated to the U.S. following the Taliban takeover more than two years ago – many of whom proved to be invaluable allies to our armed forces as translators, cultural experts, and more. Congress should heed the call of veterans and senior military officials who have urged swift passage of the bipartisan Afghan Adjustment Act to provide a direct path to lawful permanent residency for them as well.

Honoring service and sacrifice

While we take time to acknowledge the sacrifices of current and past military members, we must recognize that our non-citizen troops shouldn’t be left in legal limbo due to bureaucracy, barriers, and backlogs. Nor should our non-citizen veterans be weary of deportation over minor brushes with the law.

As we commemorate Veterans Day, we must champion the cause of our immigrant veterans and active-duty members. Their dedication, bravery, and unwavering commitment to our nation merit not just our gratitude, but also a swift and fair path to citizenship. It is not just a matter of policy, but of honor, integrity, and the very values we hold dear.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is President and CEO of Global Refuge. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter): @krishvignarajah

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