The military has faltered in providing timely, informative guidance to noncitizen troops about the naturalization process, a recent government watchdog report found.
According to a Government Accountability Office report published Sept. 14, Department of Defense policy changes, poorly completed procedures and a lack of available information all contributed to a brief decline in service member naturalization applications.
Between fiscal years 2017 and 2018, applications for citizenship by U.S. troops fell from roughly 11,000 to 2,500. The percentage of those later approved also declined, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Though noncitizens have a long history of service in the American military — over 100,000 joined the armed forces just between fiscal years 2010 and 2021 — the military’s naturalization efforts remain inadequate.
Noncitizens who are currently in the U.S. military or previously served and are lawful permanent residents are generally eligible to apply for naturalization after one year of service, according to USCIS. Since 2002, the immigration agency has naturalized more than 148,000 members of the U.S. military. Family members of service members may also be eligible for citizenship.
In 2009, a process to streamline the naturalization process for noncitizen troops became available at basic training. A DoD policy change signed in 2017, however, lengthened the time these troops needed to serve to 180 days before they were eligible for the necessary certification that allowed them to apply for expedited naturalization. This policy was eventually suspended in 2020.
While applications have since risen to pre-2018 levels, past and existing obstacles still remain for noncitizens, the GAO report shared.
“Four of the five services lack procedures to ensure the timely processing of service member requests for certification of honorable military service,” the report said, even though DoD policies direct the services to process these requests within 30 days. The Navy does have a process for tracking but was unable to establish whether it was meeting its own goals.
Additionally, while the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard offer naturalization assistance to inform their noncitizen service members, the Marine Corps had no such process in place as of April 2022. The Army, meanwhile, recently emailed its troops with resource guidance. No noncitizens were serving in Space Force as of August 2021.
In July 2021, the Pentagon, VA, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies released a strategy for promoting naturalization that noted naturalizing eligible non-permanent residents is essential to national security.
After reviewing data from USCIS, as well as military policies on naturalization, the GAO offered guidance to the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to address the gaps in the naturalization process.
The report concluded with 11 recommendations, including suggesting the services develop procedures to collect info on certification processing timelines, that the Pentagon establish a policy for ensuring the services inform noncitizen troops about naturalization resources and that it, the VA and USCIS create plans to assess their progress. The Pentagon, VA and DHS — which oversees USCIS — concurred with all recommendations.
“The Office of the Secretary of Defense will establish a policy to ensure that the military services develop and maintain a process to inform applicable noncitizen service members about the military naturalization process and available assistance and resources,” Thomas Constable, the assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, said in a letter to the GAO.
Scarlet Kim, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, was not surprised by the reports findings, especially after the the civil rights group filed a lawsuit against the service length requirements and delays in naturalization.
“The whole objective of expedited naturalization is to make sure non-citizens obtain their citizenship before they deploy,” Kim said, adding that the issue could be solved by reimplementing the initiative. “It’s a way to streamline the process.”
In another letter responding to the government watchdog, the VA’s chief of staff said efforts to assess military naturalization assistance are “well underway.”
Meanwhile, naturalization ceremonies continue to take place both at home and abroad.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media
Zamone “Z” Perez is an editorial fellow at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa, where he helped produce podcasts. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched humanitarian intervention and atrocity prevention in his thesis.