Can immigrants serve in the US military? 8 Q&As about non-citizen service

Immigration, Rights

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Some people may be surprised to learn that non-citizens play a significant role in the U.S. military. As an immigration attorney, I’m frequently asked by clients if they’re allowed to join. My clients often see the military as a way to launch their career and want to contribute to their adopted country. Here’s a quick rundown on the rules for non-citizens in the U.S. military.

Can immigrants serve in the US military?

Yes! Each year about 8,000 non-citizens join the U.S. military. A 2011 study found that roughly 4 percent of those enlisted in active-duty military service are non-citizens. Generally, if a person is not a U.S. citizen, he needs to be a green card holder, i.e., a lawful permanent resident, to join the military. As discussed below, however, there are other ways a non-citizen could qualify to serve.

How do recruiters know about immigration status?

When a person wants to enlist in the military, his name is run through a national immigration database. If the person is determined not to have status as a citizen or green card holder, he will be turned away. It is also possible the person could be referred to the immigration authorities.

If a person has any concerns about whether his immigration status is valid, he should talk to an immigration attorney before seeing a recruiter.

Are there other special cases?

Yes, a couple. Some Pacific Islanders are allowed to join the U.S. military because of international treaties. These treaty rules apply to citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Palau.

Likewise, certain Canadian citizens with American Indian heritage are treated as green card holders under U.S. law. Those individuals can enlist in the U.S. military after providing documentation of their special immigration status. (If you really want to know all about this subject, here’s a long article I wrote with a colleague).

What is MAVNI?

A program known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, allows the military to recruit non-citizens with special skills, such as health care professionals or those with language and cultural skills. The program was created in 2008 by the secretary of defense to help the military meet its recruitment goals in these high-need areas. You can request more information from the Army here.

The MAVNI program was widely seen as a success, so it was a surprise to many when the Pentagon announced in 2014 that the program has been suspended. The status of the program under the Trump Administration is now under review, and may be canceled.

Can DACA youth enlist?

Currently, no. In 2012, the Obama administration launched a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that gives limited immigration benefits to individuals who entered the U.S. as children.

Although individuals in the DACA program are authorized to work, they cannot join the military. There may be exceptions under the MAVNI program in the future, but not currently. Hopefully Congress, which has now been assigned the task of determining the future of the DACA program, will create more wiggle room for those interested in enlisting.

Are there restrictions on what jobs non-citizens can perform?

Yes. Non-citizens are somewhat limited in the jobs they can perform in the military, since only citizens can obtain the required security clearances. Each branch, however, has a significant number of job occupations that do not require citizenship.

It’s important to know that a person is not automatically barred from getting a security clearance merely because he is married to an immigrant; recruiters are sometimes confused about that point and provide incorrect information.

What happens if an undocumented person enlists?

My clients sometimes tell me that they’ve heard of undocumented immigrants who were allowed to enlist in a branch of the armed services. This is not allowed by U.S. law, so if it happens, it was a mistake by the recruiter. Once it is determined that the person is undocumented, he will be discharged from the military.

Do non-citizens have to register with the Selective Service System?

Yes. The Selective Service System is a federal agency that collects information about non-citizen individuals who may be required to perform military service. All non-citizen males ages 18 to 25 living in the U.S. have to register with Selective Service. Even undocumented immigrants who can’t enlist in the military are required to register with Selective Service.

Got more questions? Consult the free and anonymous Avvo Q&A service for more information.