Immigrants in the Military Are Less Likely to Receive Citizenship


From Draft NOtices, January-March 2020

— Rick Jahnkow

Uncle SamApproximately ten years ago I received a phone call from a U.S. soldier who was seeking help. He had joined the Army as a non-citizen with permanent legal residency status. One of the reasons he enlisted was the “promise” that he would be given citizenship.

While waiting for approval of his citizenship application, the soldier was deployed to Iraq. When I got his phone call, he was back home and had just been told that his citizenship application was denied. He was also informed by the Army that he would soon be sent back to the war zone for another deployment. In other words, after risking his life once in the belief that it would gain him citizenship, he was going to have to do it again with the knowledge that the U.S. had now turned its back on him.

I asked if a reason had been given for denying him citizenship. He said it was because he had a friend who had gotten into trouble with the law. He had done nothing wrong himself, but the mere association with someone who had a criminal record was grounds for U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) to disqualify him for citizenship. (It’s important to note that despite misrepresentations by military recruiters, it is the civilian USCIS, not the military, that decides whether to grant citizenship to an immigrant.)

The only help I could offer the soldier was to refer him to the G.I. Rights Hotline. My hope was that an experienced Hotline counselor would be able to help him explore options for getting a military discharge.

My memory of this experience was brought back recently by a story from the McClatchy D.C. news bureau. It reported that, according to data from USCIS, immigrants who applied for citizenship as members of the U.S. military were being turned down at a higher rate than civilian applicants. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2019 (October-December 2018), 16.6 percent of military applications for citizenship were denied, versus a 11.2 percent civilian denial rate. In either category that’s a lot of people who probably feel they were treated unjustly, but the difference in rates is not what most would have expected, since military worship is a prominent component of U.S. culture.

The McClatchy report says, “Attorneys for service members seeking to become citizens said new military immigration policies announced by the administration and Trump’s overall anti-immigrant rhetoric” are to blame for the difference in rejection rates. However, it’s also the case that the military’s less forgiving cultural environment and strict authoritarian legal system can make it more likely for a member of that organization to be written up for perceived misbehavior that would, in the civilian world, be deemed trivial. It can become more significant for an immigrant in the military because USCIS guidelines for denying citizenship include the failure to demonstrate “good moral character.” Such a vague term can be applied to any blemish in a person’s military record, which may be one reason why the military citizenship denials are higher.

Any immigrant who is considering joining the military should seriously consider the possibility that they will be denied citizenship and still be stuck in the military until the end of their enlistment term. For more information on enlisting for citizenship, download the Spanish/English flier on this topic in the literature and resources section of Military members needing help should contact the GI Rights Hotline, 877-447-4487,

Information source: “Immigrant soldiers now denied U.S. citizenship at higher rate than civilians,” May 15, 2019,

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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