Immigrant Military Recruits Face Continued Obstacles to Obtaining Citizenship

October 16th, 2018 by SRW Lawyers

Earlier this year, word began circulating that USCIS quietly announced the closure of all naturalization offices at US Army basic training sites. USCIS public affairs issued this guidance on January 10, 2018—only 16 days before the Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Fort Benning, Georgia and Fort Jackson, South Carolina naturalization offices were slated to close. These closures effectively spelled the end of expedited military naturalization, which allowed qualifying immigrant military recruits to begin applying for citizenship immediately after completing ten weeks of basic training. With the program’s end, immigrant soldiers now face a much lengthier and more difficult path to citizenship.

Changing Requirements for Military Naturalization

These changes are in line with the Department of Defense’s October 2017 memo announcing measures to slow down military naturalization by employing increased background checks and extended service requirements. Specifically, foreign national recruits now must complete heightened screening and background checks that may take a year or more before being shipped to basic training and they must serve 180 consecutive days on active duty after finishing basic training, or one year in reserves, before receiving a certificate of honorable service—a requirement for expedited citizenship. (Previously, recruits could ship to basic training as long as the background investigation had been initiated and previous eligibility for the certificate began after one day of service.)

Expedited military naturalization was part of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which offered a faster path to citizenship for military recruits with in-demand foreign language skills or medical training. In addition to providing these critical skills, a CNA study found that MAVNI beneficiaries serve in the military for significantly longer periods of time than citizen soldiers—their attrition rates are approximately half as high for at least the first two years of service. Regardless, the Pentagon suspended the program, citing security concerns.

Immigrant Soldiers Face Logistical Difficulties

Once soldiers are no longer residing at their basic training sites, the process of naturalization becomes much more challenging logistically. In addition to the complications and expenses caused by needing to obtain signatures and biometrics from soldiers in war zones, the N-426 form to confirm military service now requires multiple signatures from different levels of command. Previously, the N-426 was completed the day after basic training concluded.

Although the current 180-day waiting period is significantly shorter than the 3-year waiting period prior to the creation of the MAVNI program, experts and affected soldiers explain that the logistical nightmare of applying for citizenship after leaving the basic training site remains the same regardless of the length of service requirement.

MAVNI-eligible soldiers are not the only ones concerned about their immigration status. Recruits are now fearful that their conditional green cards will expire while they are waiting to pass their background checks and apply for basic training.

In response to these policy changes, immigrant soldiers have expressed their dissatisfaction. One US Army recruit who was eligible for MAVNI due to his fluency in Punjabi said, “American soldiers can potentially be killed in action and not be American citizens, which is the exact reason expedited naturalizations in BCT were installed in the first place.” He called the new policy “very heartbreaking.”

New Challenges to Military Naturalization

In recent months, the Army abruptly discharged dozens of MAVNI recruits and began discharge proceedings against nearly 150 others. Many received “uncharacterized discharges,” meaning that they were considered neither honorable nor dishonorable. In response, many of the recruits filed lawsuits challenging the dismissals, arguing that they were discharged without cause and should have been given an opportunity to appeal the decisions. Some of the soldiers allege that they were told they had been “labeled as security risks because they have relatives abroad or because the Defense Department had not completed background checks on them.”

It appeared hope was on the horizon when the Associated Press reported in August that at least three dozen previously discharged immigrant recruits had been reinstated. In response to a MAVNI beneficiary’s lawsuit, the Army stated in a filing that it would “comply with the applicable law and regulations governing administrative separation of soldiers.” However, new reports indicate that the Army is now exploring different grounds for expelling MAVNI recruits that would sidestep the pending litigation.

In September, the New York Times obtained internal emails sent from the unit in charge of vetting MAVNI soldiers, asking military lawyers to “search security files to determine whether the applicants admitted to or provided information about a crime.” Margaret D. Stock, an immigration attorney and former Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who helped implement MAVNI, said that the email indicates the Army is “going on a fishing expedition.” She emphasized that recruits could be discharged without being convicted of a crime—criminal charges or even allegations of criminal activity without formal charges could be used as grounds for dismissal.

Immigrant soldiers face an uncertain future. Many have expressed safety concerns about being deported to their countries of origin, where they could be jailed for serving in the U.S. military. Rather than making long-term plans for their lives in the U.S., MAVNI beneficiaries are applying to immigrate elsewhere, often on the basis of the same skills that originally qualified them for MAVNI. Tilak Poudel, a doctoral student researching renewable energy technology who enlisted in 2015, said, “I love America. It gave me great opportunity. I chose to serve this country. It just didn’t choose me.”

Naturalization in the U.S. is often a complex and confusing process, and it is important to consult with a qualified and experienced attorney about any concerns. If you have questions about the naturalization process or your eligibility for citizenship, please reach out to our firm. We look forward to assisting you.

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