The immigration advocacy group Veterans for New Americans hosted a panel discussion at San Antonio College’s Victory Center Thursday evening, exploring the history of military service by immigrants and the legal barriers to the enlistment of foreign-born residents.
During the first half of fiscal year 2018, military naturalizations dropped more than 60 percent compared to the same period last year.
Octavio Hinojosa, a coordinator with Veterans For New Americans, said immigrants who serve in the U.S. armed forces sometimes don’t realize that they have to complete the naturalization process in order to become citizens.
“There is a process and you have to go through it. So many of our veterans are unaware of that,” he said. “They thought they were already citizens when they left the service.”
Hinojosa said he supports a more direct path to citizenship for immigrants who serve in the military. He also argued that it's import to raise awareness with immigration service providers, community organizations, and veterans service offices about this issue.
"There are veterans who have not yet become citizens, and it's important … to take this as an issue of concern that they need to work hard and ensure that their fellow brothers and sisters in arms do become full citizens,” he said.
Approximately 40,000 immigrants now serve in the armed forces, and nearly 5,000 non-citizens enlist every year. Non-citizen veterans sometimes face deportation if they commit certain crimes. The government does not track veteran deportations.
Role Of DACA
The Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals policy was a key talking point for the panel. Hinojosa said if Congress were to pass legislation to legalize the status of DACA recipients, the military could benefit from them as recruits, according to a 2016 Army study. Researchers concluded that the “potential lift for military recruiting would be significant, adding approximately 1.489 million to the recruiting pool…”
Hinojosa said solidifying DACA would also offer security to some who are already serving in the military.
“If DACA is rescinded fully, you’re going to have individuals — about 1,000 DACA recipients who are currently enlisted — who find themselves without legal status not just in the country but certainly in the military,” he said. “So what happens with them, they get back into society and now they're undocumented. It puts their lives in dire straits.”
DACA recipients used to be able to join the Army through a program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI. MAVNI was suspended in 2016 due to security concerns.
Carson Frame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carson_frame