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Fact Sheet: Immigrants and the Military

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September 20, 2010 | Download PDF

Immigrants have a proud tradition of serving in the military. Right now there are thousands of men and women in uniform who weren’t born in the United States, yet they are willing to sacrifice everything for our country.  The Department of Defense understands the importance of the foreign-born to our fighting forces – one of the reasons it supports the DREAM Act.

The Department Of Defense said the DREAM Act would help the military in its efforts to recruit an unparalleled all-volunteer force.  In its FY2010-12 Strategic Plan, the Department of Defense set forth the performance objective “Recruit the All-Volunteer Force by finding smart ways to sustain quality assurance” and listed the DREAM Act as one of the means to do so. [FY2010-FY2012 Strategic Plan, Department of Defense, 12/30/09]

The information below helps underscore why the U.S. Department of Defense believes the military is strengthened by the foreign-born.

One of the First Service Members to Die In Iraq: Lance Cpl. Gutierrez

Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, an Immigrant From Guatemala, Was Killed In a Tank Battle In Iraq in March 2003.  According to CBS News, “The heroism and sacrifice of non-citizens was barely known — until Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez died in battle in Iraq.  He came from Guatemala, and he came to the United States illegally.  We can tell you how his story ended. He was killed in a tank battle in southern Iraq on March 21 [2003].” [CBS News, 8/20/03]

Gutierrez Was Granted Citizenship Posthumously. According to CBS News, “No death of any soldier goes un-mourned. But the death of a man who died for a country that was not his — that proved especially poignant to many Americans, including President Bush who visited two wounded non-citizen soldiers and made them citizens on the spot. Jose was also granted American citizenship posthumously, and that’s also when he became a hero. A cardinal officiated at a memorial service in a Los Angeles suburb, where many poor people, including Latinos, attended.” [CBS News, 8/20/03]

The U.S. Military Relies on Immigrants

The Military Relies On Immigrants To Help Reach Its Recruiting Goals.  According to the Immigration Policy Center, “Over the past eight years, Congress has amended military related enlistment and naturalization rules to allow expanded benefits for immigrants and their families and encourage recruitment of immigrants into the U.S. Armed Forces. The U.S. military has also implemented new programs to encourage the enlistment and rapid naturalization of non‐citizens who serve honorably during the current conflict. Without the contributions of immigrants, the military could not meet its recruiting goals and could not fill its need for foreign‐language translators, interpreters, and cultural experts.” [Margaret D. Stock, Immigration Policy Center, 11/09

Immigrants Serve In All Branches of the Military and Are a Vital Resource In The U.S. War On Terror.  According to the Immigration Policy Center, “From the Revolutionary War to the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, immigrants have made significant contributions to the United States by serving in our military forces. Today, immigrants voluntarily serve in all branches of the U.S. military and are a vital resource in the ongoing conflict against Al Qaeda and its affiliates.” [Margaret D. Stock, Immigration Policy Center, 11/09

Large Numbers of Immigrants Already Serve In the Military 

As Of 2009, There Were 114,601 Foreign-Born Individuals Serving In The Military; 12% Of Them Were Not U.S. Citizens.  The Immigration Policy Center reported, “As of June 30, 2009, there were 114,601 foreign-born individuals serving in the armed forces, representing 7.91 percent of the 1.4 million military personnel on active duty. Roughly 80.97 percent of foreign-born service members were naturalized U.S. citizens, while 12.66 percent were not U.S. citizens.” [Margaret D. Stock, Immigration Policy Center, 11/09]

Since September 11th, More Than 53,000 Immigrants Have Taken Advantage Of Wartime Military Naturalization.  According to the Immigration Policy Center, “The September 11 attacks precipitated immediate changes in policies on immigrants in the military. Once the nation was at war, immigrants in the armed forces were eligible for naturalization under the special wartime military naturalization statute. As of October 2009, more than 53,000 immigrants had taken advantage of this provision to become U.S. citizens.” [Margaret D. Stock, Immigration Policy Center, 11/09] 

More Than 100 Immigrants Have Been Granted Posthumous Citizenship After Dying In Combat In Iraq And Afghanistan.  According to the Immigration Policy Center, “President Bush’s declaration that immigrants in the military were eligible for expedited naturalization also triggered the application of Section 329A of the INA, an existing statute allowing for posthumous U.S. citizenship to be granted to immigrants who die on active duty during periods of conflict. By mid‐2009, more than 119 immigrant military members had earned their citizenship posthumously after dying in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.” [Margaret D. Stock, Immigration Policy Center, 11/09]

As Of 2008, The Highest Percentage Of Foreign-Born Military Personnel Was From Latin America and The Caribbean.  According to the Migration Policy Institute, “Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for the largest percentage of the foreign born [military personnel], followed closely by Asia. Foreign-born military personnel from Latin America and the Caribbean constituted 38.7 percent (23,926) of all the foreign born in the armed forces while 35.9 percent (22,226) were from Asia.” [Migration Policy Institute, 5/08 

As Of 2008, Nearly 11% Of Individuals Serving In The Armed Forces Were Of Hispanic Origin.  According to the Migration Policy Institute, “Nearly 11 percent of those serving in the armed forces are of Hispanic origin. Soldiers of Hispanic origin accounted for 10.5 percent (142,318) of the 1,361,458 men and women serving in the armed forces as of February 2008. Hispanics made up 13.9 percent (45,551) of the 327,680 men and women in the navy; 12.6 percent (23,813) of the 188,511 serving in the marines; 10.8 percent (56,078) of the 520,386 in the army; and 5.2 percent (16,876) of the 324,881 air force personnel.” [Migration Policy Institute, 5/08

Notable Immigrant Veterans

Alfred Rascon, An Immigrant Who Served In Vietnam, Won The Medal of Honor and Later Became The Director Of The Selective Service System.

According to the Immigration Policy Center, “Immigrants who have served in the U.S. military and by so doing earned their citizenship include Alfred Rascon, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who won the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War and later became a U.S. citizen and eventually the Director of the Selective Service System.” [Margaret D. Stock, Immigration Policy Center, 11/09

John Shalikashvili, The Former Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs of Staff, Was An Immigrant From Poland and Served In WWII.

According to the Immigration Policy Center, “Immigrants also have been promoted to the highest ranks of the U.S. military. The most prominent contemporary example is General John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who came to the United States from Poland shortly after World War II.” [Margaret D. Stock, Immigration Policy Center, 11/09]

Military Leaders Support the DREAM Act 

General Colin Powell – Former Bush Administration Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“Retired Gen. Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that Congress should approve the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who attend college for two years or join the military.  ‘Our minorities are not getting educated well enough now. Fifty percent of our minority kids are not finishing high school. We’ve got to invest in education. We should use the Dream Act as one way to do it.’” [Politico, 9/19/10]

Louis Caldera, Former Director of the White House Military Office and Secretary of the Army

“The DREAM Act will materially expand the pool of individuals qualified, ready and willing to serve their country in uniform. Of the 50,000 youth coming of age every year in the terrible predicament of being ineligible to work, enlist, or receive federal financial aid to attend college, many of those are not yet ready to pursue full time education. Military service is a highly appealing way to better themselves, give back to their country and earn their residency and eventually citizenship. I have no doubt many of these enlistees will be among the best soldiers in our Army. “ [Press Conference Call, “Military Experts, Future Enlistees Discuss the DREAM Act and Defense Authorization Bill,” 9/17/10] 

Major General Alfred Valenzuela (Ret.)

“I’ve seen the sacrifice that these immigrant men and women make to this country.  They come here with the dream of becoming citizens & sign up to die for the country they call home but yet are never granted citizenship.  We should pass the DREAM Act so that those individuals willing to give their lives to the U.S. can also be called citizens.” [Press Conference Call, “Military Experts, Future Enlistees Discuss the DREAM Act and Defense Authorization Bill,” 9/17/10]

David Chu, Bush Administration Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness

If their parents are undocumented or in immigration limbo, most of these young people have no mechanism to obtain legal residency even if they have lived most of their lives here. Yet many of these young people may wish to join the military, and have the attributes needed ‐ education, aptitude, fitness, and moral qualifications.” [CQ Congressional Testimony;”Immigration and the Military,” July 10, 2006] 

Margaret Stock, Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve (Ret.) and former professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point

“Potential DREAM Act beneficiaries are also likely to be a military recruiter’s dream candidates for enlistment … In a time when qualified recruits—particularly ones with foreign language skills and foreign cultural awareness – are in short supply, enforcing deportation laws against these young people makes no sense. Americans who care about our national security should encourage Congress to pass the DREAM Act.” [Margaret D. Stock, “The DREAM Act: Tapping an Overlooked Pool of Home Grown Talent.” The Federalist Society, Washington, DC. Engage: The Journal of the Federalist Societies Practice Group, Volume 6, Issue 2, October 2005]