For generations, immigrants have served proudly in the U.S. armed forces. Understanding the history of military service by immigrants, as well as the legal barriers to the enlistment of skilled foreign-born residents, leads us to clear policy recommendations for President Trump and Congress to consider.
Today, approximately 40,000 immigrants serve in the armed forces, and approximately 5,000 noncitizens enlist each year. As of 2016, about 511,000 veterans were foreign-born. Throughout U.S. history, many immigrants have served with distinction and are among those who have received the highest military honors. More than 20 percent of Medal of Honor recipients are immigrants.
Going forward, the net growth in the U.S. population of 18- to 29-year-olds — the segment of the population most likely to enlist — will come entirely from immigrants and the children of immigrants. With the economy having recovered from the recession of the late 2000s, for the military to recruit young people successfully, each military branch must have access to the largest potential pool of qualified candidates. The Center for Naval Analyses estimated in 2015 that only 13 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. are qualified and available to serve in the military.
America’s broken immigration system impacts active-duty military who have family members at risk of or under deportation orders.
Therefore, immigrants will play an increasingly vital role in the military’s ability to sustain an all-volunteer force. Immigrants will be an important segment of available military recruits — not just because of their numbers, but also because they possess critical skills in demand by the military. Immigrants also have lower attrition rates than other recruits.
A population of willing soldiers remains blocked from military service. Tens of thousands of young undocumented immigrants, brought to the U.S. as children and who have grown up in this country, likely would serve in the military if they were legally able to do so. If Congress were to pass legislation to legalize the status of these young people, the military would benefit from the addition of thousands of high-quality recruits. A 2010 estimate put the number of potential enlistees upon passage of legislation pending at the time — the DREAM Act — at more than 70,000. It is clear why military leaders at the highest levels have urged Congress to pass such legislation.
America’s broken immigration system impacts active-duty military who have family members at risk of or under deportation orders. Many service members are afraid to deploy because they fear what might happen to their immigrant family members. This oversight may affect thousands of service members directly. Moreover, if veterans have family members who are undocumented, they risk losing their critical support system as they attempt to reintegrate. A veteran’s family is the key to a successful transition into civilian life; the stress of potential deportation undermines this process.
And in some instances, veterans who did not naturalize during or after enlistment have been deported. The U.S. armed forces should ensure that immigrant service members have the support they need to apply for citizenship.
Margaret Stock, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and former professor at West Point Military Academy, put it best when she warned that the government has created an “extremely complex and often arbitrary system of immigration laws and regulations without full attention to the detrimental impact that this system has on the readiness of the U.S. armed forces.”
Veterans for New Americans calls on Congress and the White House to modernize our immigration process and pass immigration reforms that take into account national security and military readiness needs. It is in our nation’s best interest to ensure that service members focus on their mission and have family support while they are deployed and when they return home from overseas assignments. Our nation can ensure the broadest pool of potential service members by including the millions of young undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children. Moreover, all branches of the armed services should do all they can to ensure that noncitizen soldiers understand their opportunities for citizenship and help them secure the rights they have earned by defending our nation.
By Veterans for New Americans
Veterans for New Americans, National Immigration Forum.