115,000 Strong: The Immigrants in Our Military

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Seven sailors died last Saturday when a 30,000-ton container ship T-boned the USS Fitzgerald, a Navy destroyer off the coast of Japan. They ranged in age from 19 to 37. The oldest, Gary Rehm of Elyria, Ohio, reportedly pulled 20 shipmates from the flooded berthing bay, and dove back down even as the safety hatches were closing around him. (His was one of several such stories on the day.) In age and mettle, the group was perhaps representative, but as the New York Times noted, their diverse backgrounds made them representative also.

Three were first- or second-generation Americans, and two more had a parent from a foreign country. All were current citizens, but they point toward the increasing role that immigrants have had in the armed forces over the past 15 years.

As many as 115,000 members of the military are foreign-born, or, between 5 and 8 percent of total enlistment. Nearly 40 percent are in the Navy, followed by the Army, Air Force, and Marines (at 10 percent). On a given year, between 15 and 20 thousand of them are hoping to be granted citizenship during their service through the longstanding process of military naturalization. But one would have to go back to World War II to find numbers comparable to today’s ranks.

The current rise in foreign-born soldiers came largely as a product of a 2002 Bush doctrine that would expedite citizenship for those who fought, to satisfy the heavy demand for troops after 9/11. A 2009 policy that allowed the possibility to become a citizen after completing basic training helped to nearly double immigrant ranks in the following years. Each year, roughly 8,000 take the oath. When asked, generally, about the issue a year ago, President Trump appeared to support it — “I think when you serve in the armed forces, that’s a very special situation,” he said — and the Defense Department has said they have no plans to revoke the initiatives. But, as reported by the military publication Stars and Stripes, September rule changes requiring two years of legal immigration status and a completion of a term of service before receiving clearance for citizenship have threatened the arrangement.

Even so, there’s little doubt that becoming a fully legal American might be a powerful incentive to serve. It’s certainly not the whole story; since 2001, more than a hundred have been granted their citizenship posthumously. Last week’s tragedy was just another reminder of who stands between us and the other guy, and the price they’re willing to pay.