Are Immigrants Flooding the Military for U.S. Citizenship?

Military service is not exactly the breezy fast track to citizenship it can appear to be.

By Julianne Hing Jul 06, 2011

Are immigrants joining the military to circumvent the U.S. immigration system’s notorious backlogs and win citizenship for themselves and visas for their family? A new article from AFP seems to suggest so. The piece tells the story of Darby Ortego, a 25-year-old Filipino-American who became a citizen this year after serving in the military. He’sbeen stationed in Afghanistan.

AFP reports:

Like thousands of fellow Filipinos, he sees the US military as a fast-track to American citizenship, securing his own future and also helping his family back home. "I joined up to get my mom to America," said Private Ortego, who is deployed at Combat Outpost Sabari in Khost, where US troops clash with Taliban rebels based across the border in Pakistan. "I want to bring my mom from her village in the Philippines to Nevada, where I live. I want her to be with me." Ortego is one of the roughly 9,000 legal immigrants who join the US armed forces each year from countries as far apart as Panama, Nigeria, Liberia and Turkey.

The piece goes on to suggest that joining the military is a straightforward route to citizenship that many are taking.

In the last 10 years, nearly 69,000 immigrant troops have become US citizens while serving. Naturalisation takes just months for serving military personnel compared to years for regular legal immigrants. Unemployment and poverty in their homeland have driven millions of Filipinos abroad to search for work, often on construction sites or as domestic staff. "It is better in the US because there are more opportunities. You can find a job and they will pay a decent amount," said Ortego, who sends money back to his family in Northern Samar province.

All true as it is, except that in order to even qualify for military service, foreign nationals must first have a green card, which is nearly impossible to come by these days. Military service is not exactly the breezy fast track to citizenship it can appear to be.

And for Filipinos in particular, visa wait times stretch on for decades. In fact, the July Visa Bulletin from the State Department showed that Filipino family members of U.S. citizens wait the longest. The State Department is just now getting around to processing the applications of some people who filed their paperwork in April 15, 1988. The wait times for the immediate family of U.S. citizens, which Ortego’s mother has now become, is much shorter because folks who fall in one of the three classes of immediate family members–spouses, children under 21 and parents–are exempt from visa limits, but the fact remains that visa wait times for people hoping to be reunified with their U.S. family members stretch on for interminably long periods.

Non-citizens serve a crucial role in the U.S. military. In fact, they always have, argues Lt. Col. Margaret Stock. Since Sept. 11, when President Bush allowed for expedited citizenship for non-citizens who enlisted, the numbers of immigrants serving in the military has risen. But immigrants join the military for more than citizenship benefits. There are classes of immigrants who want to join the military but are barred from doing so because they’re not permanent residents. Many, like those who advocate for the DREAM Act, a narrow legalization bill that would allow a select class of undocumented youth to become eligible for citizenship if they commit two years to higher education or the military, have been raised in the U.S. and want to join the military as doctors, engineers and pilots. Current law bars them from enlisting.

If citizenship is the only reward for non-citizens who enlist, many have paid a high price for their commitment. According to the Immigration Policy Center, in the last decade more than 100 immigrants have been granted posthumous citizenship after dying in combat while fighting U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.