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MILITARY UPDATE: Non-citizen troops stay in, work hard

January 16, 2012
photo - Tom Philpott Photo by
Tom Philpott Photo by  

The armed forces have enlisted nearly 70,000 non-citizens since the attacks of 9/11 and, as a group, their washout rate is much lower than that of American citizens who enlist, according CNA, a think tank that studied attrition data gathered by the Defense Manpower Data Center.

Within three months of entering active service, 8.2 percent of citizen enlistees have been discharged. That is more than double the 4 percent attrition rate of non-citizens.

At the three-year mark, 28 percent of citizens have left before completing initial service obligations while the washout rate for non-citizens is 16 percent. The disparity widens at four years, with 32 percent of citizen recruits having been discharged versus only 18 percent of non-citizen accessions.

The results don’t change much when adjusted for age or other demographic differences, or even when comparisons are broken out by branch of service, CNA analysts found.

“These findings are consistent with the anecdotal evidence we gathered in our interviews of recruiters and non-citizen recruits,” wrote researchers Molly F. McIntosh and Seema Sayala.

“The interviews revealed that, relative to citizen recruits, non-citizen recruits generally have a stronger attachment to serving the United States, which they now consider to be ‘their country,’ and (they) have a better work ethic.”

Given their lower attrition rate, which saves on recruiting and training costs, and the diversity of language and cultural skills that non-citizens have, CNA recommends that the services develop strategies to recruit more non-citizens, particularly as the U.S. economy improves, recruiting gets more difficult and demand stays high for foreign language skills.  Suggested strategic targets are more non-citizens from India, Pakistan and China because of their educational attainment and command of English.

The report, Non-Citizens in the Enlisted U.S. Military, says that, given declining U.S. fertility rates, “the only source of net growth in the U.S. recruiting-age population is projected to be immigration” in coming decades. CNA estimates that the potential pool of eligible non-citizens, ages 18 to 29, is roughly 1.2 million.  

Non-citizens can enlist if they hold legal permanent resident status, have education equivalent to a high school diploma and can speak acceptable English. And since July 2002, under an executive order signed by then-President George W. Bush, any non-citizen recruits is eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship after just a day of honorable service during a time of war. 

Previously, non-citizen service members had to serve for three years to apply for citizenship.
Army, Navy and, most recently, Air Force have partnered with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) so that the naturalization process for non-citizen recruits can begin during basic training.

CNA recommends that the Marine Corps take a similar path. It notes that since the 2002 executive order, non-citizen Marines have had to wait longer to gain U.S. citizenship than recruits other branches.

Until members gain citizenship, they cannot get security clearances.  As a result, non-citizens can be assigned only to about one quarter of all Air Force enlisted positions, two-fifths of Navy jobs and about one half of all Army and Marine Corps enlisted slots.

Air Force is the only service that denies reenlistment those  who fail to gain citizenship by the end of their initial  obligation. That incentive results in about 70 percent of Air Force non-citizen recruits attaining citizenship during their first term, which is about 40 percentage points higher than the average reported across the branches.

More than 125 service members who enlisted as non-citizens since the attacks of 9/11 have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, a senior defense official told Congress last summer.

Among CNA recommendation is that the Department of Defense and USCIS share information more effectively.  Defense officials aren’t always told when citizenship for a member is approved.  And USCIS isn’t notified when non-citizen recruits wash out.

“USCIS has the authority to revoke citizenship if a service member leaves the military with other-than-honorable discharge before completing five years,” the report explains in a footnote.  “To our knowledge, however, USCIS does not have sufficient visibility on attrition [to] enforce this, nor does this currently seem to be a priority for USCIS.”

In November 2008 the services gained authority to recruit a total of 1,000 non-citizens who lack legal residency status but have skills “vital to the national interest” such as fluency in critical languages.  This program was expanded later to 1,500 more recruits in 2009.  Most are allocated to Army.

The CNA study doesn’t touch on the DREAM Act, which the Obama administration supports but Republicans in Congress have blocked.  That bill would allow immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally at age 15 or younger to earn permanent resident status by completing at least two years of military service or two years of college.

Defense officials support the bill, citing history back to the Revolutionary War of non-citizens gaining citizenship through service.  Almost half of Army enlistees in the 1840s were non-citizens and more than 660,000 veterans became naturalized citizens from 1862 through 2000.


To comment, email, write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111 or visit:

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