Can Non-U.S. Citizens Join the United States Military?

Members of the Armed Forces Become Citizens

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Every year, more than 8,000 green card holders but who are non-U.S. citizens join the military. However, recently some policy changes may interfere with the ability for some resident but non-U.S. citizens to join the military, even in a limited (no security clearance) capacity. 

MAVNI Program - Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, enables non-citizens to join the military with such skills as interpreters, certain cultural knowledge, and even medical professionals. However, in 2014 the program was suspended and the current administration is looking to cancel the program altogether. 

DACA Program - Currently, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) may face a new reality in the current administration and could be subject to deportation versus having the ability to work or attend advanced educational opportunities. However, Congress could change direction and allow DACA groups the opportunity to serve in the military. 

Pathway to Citizenship?

There is great interest from all over the world from foreigners wanting to serve in the United States Military. Often, they know it can be a pathway to citizenship, but not always. The two involved branches of government—Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security—do not work together to naturalize citizens. It is the same process for all holders of the green card. However, military members may have an expedited process.

There are some steps to be eligible for military service as a non-citizen. Here is a frequently asked question on the topic:

Can a Non-U.S. Citizen Join the United States Military?

Yes. A non-citizen can enlist in the military. However, federal law prohibits non-citizens from becoming commission or warrant officers.

In order for a non-citizen to enlist in the military, they must first be a legal immigrant (with a green card), permanently residing in the United States.

The green card is slang for Permanent Resident Card and has a 10-year span before it has to be renewed. The card is issued by the Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security and contains a photo and fingerprint. Years ago the green card was green, but today it looks something like a driver's license.

Security Clearance Issues

Federal Law prohibits granting a security clearance to non-citizens. Once you receive your green card, you can go to the U.S. Military recruiter of the branch of service you desire. However, until you are a citizen you are not granted a security clearance so your ability to serve in higher responsibility positions will be denied. Jobs in Intelligence, Nuclear, or Special Ops are limited, however, needed linguists can still assist the military in these fields as translators. But actually becoming, for instance, a Navy SEAL or EOD specialist, is limited to citizens only. Once you become a citizen, you can join these groups and be granted security clearances just like U.S.-born military members.

"Accelerated" Process to Citizenship

There is recent history within the United States military to allow military members from foreign countries have an accelerated path to citizenship. This is somewhat true, however, the time to become a citizen is largely due to the Homeland Security Department and their capabilities. 

The military cannot and will not assist in the immigration process. One must immigrate first, using normal immigration quotas and procedures, and—once they've established an address in the United States—they can find a recruiter's office and apply for enlistment

In 1990, in the early days of Gulf War One, President George H.W. Bush signed an executive order which allowed any military member (active duty, Reserves, or National Guard) to apply for citizenship, without any residency requirement. This saves the military member five years on the civilian applicant for citizenship so when you hear the military help you accelerate the process, this is what that means.

Since July 3, 2002, under special provisions in Section 329 of the INA, President Bush signed an executive order authorizing all non-citizens who have served honorably in the U.S. armed forces on or after Sept. 11, 2001, to immediately file for citizenship. This order also covers veterans of certain designated past wars and conflicts. The authorization will remain in effect until a date designated by a future presidential executive order.

More Information About U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Special provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) state: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may expedite the application and naturalization process for current members of the U.S. armed forces and recently discharged service members. Qualifying military service includes serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and National Guard. In addition, spouses of members of the U.S. armed forces who are or will be deployed may be eligible for expedited naturalization. Other provisions of the law also allow certain spouses to complete the naturalization process abroad.

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