Immigrants have been serving in our armed forces since the beginning of our republic. At times, a significant portion of our military was foreign-born. Roughly a quarter of the Union Army during the Civil War was foreign-born. Our military force was 18 percent immigrant in World War I. During World War II, Congress made it easier for immigrants serving in the military to become naturalized citizens.
In 2015, about 40,000 immigrants were serving in our armed forces, and about 5,000 noncitizens enlist each year. Approximately 11 percent of all veterans are either foreign-born, or came from families where at least one parent was an immigrant. About 20 percent of our Medal of Honor winners are immigrants.
Military service has always been a tool for integration, as military service offers equal opportunities for promotion, future education, and skills training.
Willing and Able Recruits Barred from Service
Immigrants will continue to be an important component of the armed forces in the future. With the economy continuing to recover from the Great Recession of the late 2000s, there are more opportunities in civilian markets, and military recruiters are having more difficulty finding eligible young people willing to serve. For a variety of reasons, only 13 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds were eligible to serve in 2015. Of a total target recruitment population of 33.4 million, the Army estimates that just 0.4 percent would be qualified and willing to serve, according to the Army Times.
Despite a more challenging recruitment environment, a large number of potential recruits are kept from enlisting in the military. These are young people who were brought to the U.S. as children, and have grown up here. Many of these individuals would be eligible for the DREAM Act, which provides a path to legal status through military service (as well as education). Congress has failed to pass the measure on several attempts in the last decade, and the bill is again before Congress. Many high-ranking military officials have supported the DREAM Act in the past, as it would add to the pool of potential recruits the military needs.
Unique Problems of Immigrant Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families
Perhaps thousands of members of the armed services have spouses or other family members who are undocumented immigrants. The stress over a parent, spouse, child, or sibling who has no legal status weighs heavily on these service members. Many are afraid to deploy for fear that something may happen to their family member.
In the context of Congressional inaction on immigration reform, the Obama administration instituted a policy that permits the spouse of a member of the armed forces to remain in the U.S., protected from deportation, until an immigrant visa can be obtained for the spouse. For those who are deployed defending our country, the policy provides some reassurance that the country they are fighting to defend will not deport their husband or wife. For veterans trying to adjust to civilian life, the policy ensures they will not lose their family support system.
Some veterans do not make the transition to civilian life smoothly. For immigrant veterans—even permanent residents—a run-in with the law may result in deportation. Even relatively minor crimes may be considered “aggravated felonies” in the parallel universe of immigration law. An immigrant veteran convicted of an “aggravated felony” faces deportation and permanent banishment from the country. Military service to the country cannot be considered as grounds for leniency. Veterans in this situation are unable to access their veterans benefits and face permanent separation from their families. As Lt. Col. Carter Crewe noted, “A one-mistake deportation policy is unjust and wrong for immigrant veterans who have the right at death to be buried in our national cemeteries.”
Veterans for New Americans have put forth a series of recommendations for immigration reform that will enhance our military readiness in a paper just published by the National Immigration Forum, For the Love of Country: New Americans Serving in our Armed Forces. These policies aim to ensure that service members focus on their mission and have support from their families while they are deployed and when they return home. The recommendations also aim to keep the pool of potential recruits as broad as possible by including the young undocumented people who grew up in the U.S. and are now barred from serving their country.