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Immigrants in the Military: A History of Service

In the last few years, there have been increasing policy questions raised about immigrants serving in the United States Armed Forces. Most recently, the Department of Defense is considering ending the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program, which allows certain legal immigrants with needed skills such as strategic languages or medical education to earn green cards by serving in the Army. The concern raised seems to be about the security risk of foreign nationals serving in our armed forces, and yet the history of the United States is filled with foreigners fighting for our freedoms, starting with the Revolutionary War.

Immigrants have served in the ranks of the U.S. military in every major conflict since, including those being fought today. These individuals often fill vital roles in the military when there are not enough U.S. recruits or to meet the demand for specific skills. Over 230 years ago, the country needed experienced officers. Today, the Army employs immigrants in a variety of ways, such as in translation and medical services. This post aims to explore the history of immigrant involvement in the U.S. armed forces and the crucial work they do today.

Some of young America’s greatest heroes were foreigners. When he arrived in New York from France on August 16, 1824, for a tour of the United States, the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution and compatriot of George Washington, was greeted with an official welcome and by thousands of Americans. In his remarks, following those of the mayor, Lafayette said, “It is the pride of my heart to have been one of the earliest adopted sons of America.” Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian military officer, was granted American citizenship for his service to the nation during the Revolution.

After the country’s founding, foreigners continued to play a major role in the nation’s armed conflicts. During the American Civil War, more than 20 percent of Union soldiers were foreign born, largely being of German or Irish origin. Union Major General Franz Siegel was a German immigrant and was a motivating factor for many German immigrants to enlist in the Union Army. During World War I, around 500,000 immigrants served in the military—approximately 18 percent of all soldiers. After the war, 192,000 immigrant veterans were awarded citizenship.

Foreigners have continued to serve in significant numbers since World War II. Over 300,000 immigrants served in the armed forces during the Second World War, 109,000 of whom were noncitizens. Over 100,000 noncitizens that served in the armed forces during that period would receive naturalization for their service. During the Korean War, 31,000 foreign-born soldiers would become naturalized citizens. In 2016, there were approximately 511,000 foreign-born veterans of the armed forces residing in the United States, representing three percent of the total veteran population of 18.8 million. And of the remainder, 1.5 million veterans had at least one parent that was an immigrant.

In the last several years, immigrants that are healthcare professionals or have desired language and cultural backgrounds have been specifically targeted for military recruitment and a path to citizenship. The Department of Defense operates the MAVNI recruitment program to identify such individuals. For FY2016, 5,200 openings were made available under the program for those that qualified. More than 50 languages were identified as eligible MAVNI languages for their strategic value to the Army, including Korean, Pashto, Arabic, Swahili, and Russian.

Although more than 10,000 soldiers have entered the program since 2009, the Pentagon is now considering cancelling the contracts of 1,000 recent recruits due to concerns over security vetting of these foreign-born applicants. An additional 4,100 naturalized U.S. citizens MAVNI recruits have been singled out for additional security screening. Margaret Stock, the Army officer who helped create the program, has strongly criticized the decision. Stock does not believe that these recruits are security risks and has said this would be akin to treating the recruits like second class citizens. Further, the potential cancellation of signed agreements between the Department of Defense and these recruits undercuts the trust between the military and its service members and their families to support them and keep their promises to those who fight for the country.

While security vetting for all military recruits is necessary, by filling needed positions in the medical field and providing cultural and language skills, these recruits support the security interests of the United States at home and abroad. Like all those who came before them, today’s immigrant troops help keep the country safe at their own peril in the hopes of acquiring citizenship in exchange, a deal that has been struck hundreds of thousands of times before.

“I gave my heart to the Americans and thought of nothing else but raising my banner and adding my colors to theirs.” – Marquis de Lafayette

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