Embarking on the journey to become a US citizen is a significant undertaking for immigrants. However, serving in the US military holds some unique advantages for immigrants, including the opportunity for expedited citizenship, job security, education benefits, training, and the chance to contribute to the country’s defense and security. Immigrants are welcome to join various branches, such as the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard.
Accelerated naturalization through military service
To become a US citizen through military service, one must meet specific criteria and requirements. While we recommend consulting with a reputable immigration lawyer and your military recruiter, here are some basic guidelines for those considering this route to naturalization:
- You must be 18 years old or older
- Have served honorably at any time in the US armed forces for periods totaling at least one year
Residence and physical presence:
- Be a lawful permanent resident at the time of the naturalization interview
- If stationed outside the United States, you may submit two properly completed FD-258 fingerprint cards taken by the military police, Department of Homeland Security officials, or U.S. Embassy or Consulate officials
- If you are overseas or unable to report for fingerprinting, USCIS will request and use your enlistment fingerprints if they are available.
- If you are currently serving overseas, you may be interviewed and naturalized abroad at certain military installations. You may request overseas processing at any time in the naturalization process. Please see www.uscis.gov/military for specific instructions
Language and knowledge:
- Demonstrate the ability to read, write, and speak English unless qualified for a waiver or exception
- Demonstrate understanding of US history and government, unless exempt
- Complete Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. The standard application fee is waived for military member
- File Form N-426, Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service
- Attend the naturalization interview and take the Oath of Allegiance in the United States
- Certain naturalization requirements may not apply to current or former US military members. For example, if you served honorably during a designated period of hostilities, you may not have to reside in or be physically present in the US for any length of time before applying for naturalization.
The processing times for these steps can vary, but the naturalization timeline for military service members is generally shorter than that for civilians. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides regular updates on processing times for naturalization applications, and the current processing times can be checked on the USCIS website.
It’s important to note that the timeline may be affected by factors such as the volume of applications, the complexity of the case, and any additional evidence or documentation required. Service members seeking to naturalize through military service are encouraged to consult the USCIS website and their military legal assistance office for the most current information and guidance on the naturalization process.
Changes and challenges in military naturalization
According to FWD, approximately 5,000 legal permanent residents each year enlist in the US military, contributing to a long history of immigrant service in the armed forces. Over the past 20 years, more than 148,000 immigrants have served and earned citizenship through military service.
However, the number of service members gaining citizenship has decreased significantly in recent years. FWD estimates that this decline can be attributed to policy changes that made naturalization increasingly difficult for immigrant military recruits.
In 2017, former President Trump’s Administration implemented new wait times for the Department of Defense to issue the “honorable service” paperwork required for citizenship applications. Enlistees were ordered to serve at least six months and complete additional background and security checks before beginning the naturalization process. Some immigrant recruits were deployed abroad during the mandatory wait time, making preparing the required paperwork, fingerprints, and interviews significantly more challenging.
On August 25, 2020, a federal judge ruled that these mandatory wait times were illegal, vacating the policy and ordering the Department of Defense to certify “honorable service” within 30 days of a request. Despite this ruling, the impact of the previous policy changes had already significantly affected the naturalization process for many service members. In response to these challenges, the US military has reinstated a program that allows Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) to apply for accelerated naturalization upon arrival at basic training.
Accelerated naturalization for Lawful Permanent Residents in basic training
The US military has reinstated a program that allows Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) to apply for accelerated naturalization upon arrival at basic training. Those wishing to take advantage of accelerated naturalization must complete the N400 and N426 forms and carry the documents to basic training.
The program allows recruits to naturalize at the end of basic training. This initiative was revived at a time when the military was having trouble attracting recruits. The program is a partnership between the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, which allows active duty service members with green cards to become citizens during basic training.
Under this program, recruits are quickly enrolled in the citizenship system. When they start basic training, an expedited process begins, which includes all required paperwork and testing. By the time recruits finish their training, the process is complete, and they are sworn in as American citizens.
Additional benefits for immigrants serving in the US military
Immigrants in the US military and their families are eligible for additional benefits, including immigration benefits, educational opportunities, language support, and healthcare services.
Family member benefits
In addition to the benefits for the service members, their family members may also be eligible for immigration benefits. These benefits include parole in place, overseas naturalization, and citizenship and permanent residence for surviving family members.
- Parole in place: The term “parole in place” (PIP) refers to a program that allows certain undocumented family members of US military personnel to stay and work in the United States. Parole in place is considered a lawful immigration status when applying for a Green Card. PIP beneficiaries are eligible for work authorization and do not accrue unlawful presence during the period they receive parole.
- Overseas naturalization: If your spouse is a service member stationed outside the country, you may count the period you accompany your spouse overseas as time living in the US. Ordinarily, you must live in the US for a certain number of years before being eligible to apply for citizenship. However, as a service member’s spouse, you can also apply for citizenship while overseas.
- Citizenship and permanent residence: According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), If you are the spouse, child, or parent of a deceased US citizen service member who died during a period of honorable service, you may be eligible for naturalization. You must be a lawful permanent resident and meet the other general naturalization requirements, except for the residence or physical presence requirements in the US.
The GI Bill for immigrants
One of the compelling advantages of military service is the educational benefits offered to service members. The military can be a stepping stone to academic success for immigrants, with programs like the GI Bill and initiatives that allow immigrant veterans and their families to pursue higher education.
There are two main types of the GI Bill: the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB). The Post-9/11 GI Bill is typically the preferred option for most college-bound students, and it provides benefits such as tuition and fee payments, a monthly housing allowance, and a stipend for books and supplies. The MGIB is available to individuals who enlisted in the US Armed Forces after September 11, 2001, and it also offers education and training benefits.
In addition to traditional college programs, the GI Bill can be used for other education and training programs, including flight training, foreign exchange programs, apprenticeships, and distance learning. Studying at foreign schools is also covered by the bill, and the GI Bill Comparison Tool can help identify which benefits are available at a particular institution.
Language support in the military
Immigrants in the US military have access to various language support resources to assist them in their military service and beyond. Language services include:
- Language interpretation and document translation: Military service members and their families can receive assistance with language interpretation and document translations through resources such as Military OneSource and the American Immigration Lawyers Association Military Assistance Program.
- Foreign language recruiting initiative: The US Army provides a Foreign Language Recruiting Initiative that enables applicants whose first language is not English to enlist and receive English language training before attending Basic Combat Training. This initiative allows non-English speakers to receive English language training and pursue military service.
From language interpretation to specialized recruiting initiatives, the military aims to provide comprehensive language support to ensure that all service members, regardless of their language background, can contribute effectively to the nation’s defense.
Life insurance and medical benefits
Active-duty military members are eligible for $50,000 to $400,000 in life insurance. Most military bases also provide medical and dental services, which can be especially beneficial for immigrants who may not have access to affordable healthcare. Active duty service members, including immigrants, can receive health care services at Military Treatment Facilities (MTFs), which are operated by the military and provide various medical services, including primary care, specialty care, and pharmacy services.
The vital role of immigrant service members in the US military
The military has historically relied on foreign-born service members, such as highly skilled translators and technical experts, for their vital contributions to the military’s success on the world stage. According to the Immigrant Learning Center, over the last 100 years, more than 760,000 non-citizens have enlisted and gained US citizenship.
The military’s recognition of the knowledge, expertise, and diverse backgrounds immigrants bring to the military has created a supportive environment for immigrant service members. This environment has been crucial in integrating immigrant service members into the military and the United States, ensuring they receive the necessary support and resources to effectively contribute to the nation’s defense and American society.
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