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Struggling with recruitment problems, the U.S. military is turning to immigrants and offering them citizenship.
The Army reestablished a program last October for legal permanent residents to apply for accelerated naturalization once they get to basic training. Recruiters began to reach out on social media, using short videos in various languages to target the top 10 countries that recruits had come from during the previous year.
The Air Force effort began this year, and the first group of 14 graduated from basic training and were sworn in as new citizens in April. They included recruits from Cameroon, Jamaica, Kenya, the Philippines, Russia and South Africa. As of mid-May there were about 100 in basic training who had begun the citizenship process and about 40 who had completed it.
“Their desire to become citizens exemplifies their commitment and dedication to the United States,” Col. John P. O’Dell, 37th Training Wing vice commander, said in a statement. “When we began the partnership with USCIS, we asked all trainees who would be interested in starting their application, and 111 raised their hands. These trainees volunteered to serve a country they aren’t yet citizens of, and now we get to formally recognize them upon their graduation as American Airmen.”
Both the Army and the Air Force say they will not meet their recruiting goals this year, and the Navy also expects to fall short. Pulling more from the legal immigrant population might not provide large numbers, but any small boosts will help. The Marine Corp is the only service on pace to meet its goal.
The shortfalls have led to a wide range of new recruiting programs, ad campaigns and other incentives to help the services compete with often higher-paying, less risky jobs in the private sector. Defense leaders say young people are less familiar with the military, are drawn more to corporate jobs that provide similar education and other benefits, and want to avoid the risk of injury and death that service in defense of the United States could bring. In addition, they say that little more than 20% meet the physical, mental and character requirements to join.
“We have large populations of legal U.S. residents who are exceptionally patriotic, they’re exceptionally grateful for the opportunities that this country has provided,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, head of the service’s recruiting command, said.
Thomas said the program required changes to Air Force policy, coordination with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and a careful screening process to ensure there are no security risks.
“We have to take exceptional measures to be able to thoroughly vet and go through the security clearance investigation,” he said, adding in many cases the immigrants are not immediately put in jobs that require top secret clearance.
Under the new program, recruits are quickly enrolled in the citizenship system and when they start basic training, an expedited process kicks off, including all required paperwork and testing. By the time Air Force recruits finish their seven weeks of training, the process is complete and they are sworn in as American citizens.
The first group of 14 included several who are seeking various medical jobs, while another wants to be an air transportation specialist. Thomas said Airman 1st Class Natalia Laziuk, 31, emigrated from Russia nine years ago, has dreamed of being a U.S. citizen since she was 11, and learned about the military by watching American movies and television.
“Talking to this young airman, she essentially said, ‘I just wanted to be useful to my country,'” he said. “And that’s a story that we see played over and over and over again. I’ve talked to a number of these folks around the country. They’re hungry to serve.”
Illegal migrants are not eligible, since the program is just for green-card holders.
“The Biden administration still requires people to have a green card to join the military, but they’re overwhelmed with people who want to join the military and cannot because they don’t have a green card,” retired Army Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, author of “Immigration Law & the Military,” told the Washington Examiner.
“Up until 2006, in wartime, U.S. law allowed the military to recruit anybody who was in the country — Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War.
“If they were male and they were in the country and of draft age, they got drafted.”
“They’re still going to have mission failure because it’s too hard to get a green card,” Stock told the Examiner. “There is a movement in Congress now, which I’m hoping will be successful, to give people green cards if they join the military. That would solve the military’s recruiting problems.
“They speak English. They’re here legally, but they don’t have green cards, and they’re not going to get green cards for years because there is no process for getting them a green card quickly. So they can’t join the military.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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