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Immigrants in the U.S. Armed Forces

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Immigrants in the U.S. Armed Forces

According to data from the Department of Defense, more than 65,000 immigrants (non-U.S. citizens and naturalized citizens) were serving on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces as of February 2008. Since September 2001, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has naturalized more than 37,250 foreign-born members of the U.S. Armed Forces and granted posthumous citizenship to 111 service members.

The current presence of immigrants in the military has a number of historical precedents. According to USCIS, the foreign born composed half of all military recruits by the 1840s and 20 percent of the 1.5 million service members in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, and certain nationals of three countries in free association with the United States — the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau — are eligible for military service. In addition, Congress can deem other foreign-born individuals as eligible to serve if the secretary of a specific military branch "determines that such enlistment is vital to the national interest."

This Spotlight focuses on the statistics and policy changes regarding the foreign born in the army, navy, marines and air force. The data come from the Department of Defense (as of February 2008) and from USCIS (as of April 2008) unless otherwise noted.

Note: In this Spotlight, the terms "immigrant" and "foreign born" are used interchangeably and refer to members of the U.S. military who are either naturalized citizens or noncitizens.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Statistics on Immigrant Service Members on Active Duty

Citizenship and the Armed Forces

Statistics on Immigrant Service Members on Active Duty

Approximately 65,000 immigrants serve in the armed forces.
As of February 2008, there were 65,033 foreign-born individuals on active duty in the U.S. military. This number includes both naturalized citizens and noncitizens.

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More than two-thirds of the foreign born serving in the armed forces are naturalized citizens.
The 44,705 members of the U.S. armed forces who were naturalized citizens in February 2008 represent 68.7 percent of the 65,033 foreign-born serving in U.S. military. The 20,328 noncitizen members account for 31.3 percent of the total.

The share of naturalized members on active duty has increased since May 2006, when it was 51.3 percent (or 35,262) of the 68,711 foreign-born military personnel.

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The foreign born represent approximately 5 percent of all active-duty personnel.
The foreign born represented 4.8 percent of the 1.36 million active-duty personnel in the armed forces as of February 2008.

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Of all military branches, the navy has the highest number of foreign-born personnel.
There were 26,597 foreign-born individuals in the navy as of February 2008, representing 40.9 percent of the total foreign-born population on active duty. There were also 14,896 foreign-born individuals (22.9 percent) serving in the army, 13,436 (20.7 percent) in the air force, and 10,104 (15.5 percent) in the marines.

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Approximately 8 percent of those serving in the navy are foreign born.
Foreign-born individuals constituted 8.1 percent of the 327,680 navy personnel as of February 2008. The foreign born also comprised 5.4 percent of the 188,511 men and women serving in the marines; 4.1 percent of the 324,881 individuals in the air force; and 2.9 percent of the 520,386 individuals serving in the army.

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Over 11,000 foreign-born women are serving in the armed forces.
As of February 2008, 11,182 foreign-born women were on active duty in the U.S. armed forces, representing 17.2 percent of all foreign born serving in the military.

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The top two countries of origin for foreign-born military personnel are the Philippines and Mexico.
The Philippines, with 22.8 percent (14,854), accounted for the largest percentage of the foreign born in the armed forces in February 2008. In addition, 9.5 percent (6,188) of the immigrants were born in Mexico; 4.7 percent (3,064) in Jamaica; 3.1 percent (2,007) in Korea; and 2.5 percent (1,372) in the Dominican Republic.

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Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for the largest percentage of the foreign born, 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 (see Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Immigrants in the U.S. Armed Forces by Region of Birth, February 2008
 
*Northern America includes Bermuda, Canada, and Greenland.
Source: Active Duty Personnel Master File, Department of Defense.


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As of February 2008, there were 359 service members born in Western Asia and 826 born in south-central Asia.
Of all foreign-born active duty personnel, 359 armed services members were born in Western Asia. For example, there were 97 from Iran; 50 from Lebanon; 45 from Saudi Arabia; 40 from Israel; 32 from Iraq; 29 from Jordan; 28 from Kuwait; and 13 from Syria.

From south-central Asia, for instance, there were 390 foreign born from India; 125 from Pakistan; 69 from Bangladesh; 49 from Nepal; and 27 from Afghanistan.

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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.

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Citizenship and the Armed Forces

A July 2002 executive order made noncitizen members of the armed forces eligible for expedited U.S. citizenship.
Section 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the president to issue executive orders specifying periods of conflict during which foreign-born members of the U.S. military are eligible for immediate U.S. citizenship. In a July 2002 executive order, President Bush specified that such a period of hostilities began after September 11, 2001, and that foreign-born, noncitizen military personnel serving on or after that date were thus eligible for expedited citizenship. During times of peace, noncitizen armed forces members may obtain citizenship after a one-year waiting period.

According to the White House, other executive orders specifying periods of conflict have allowed noncitizens to immediately become U.S. citizens. During World War I and World War II, for example, 143,000 noncitizen military personnel were immediately naturalized; 31,000 foreign-born armed services members became citizens during the Korean War.

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More than 37,250 immigrant service members have become U.S. citizens since September 2001.
According to USCIS data from April 2008, more than 37,250 foreign-born military personnel have become U.S. citizens since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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USCIS has granted posthumous citizenship to 111 military personnel killed in the line of duty since September 2001.
According to April 2008 figures from USCIS, 111 armed services members killed in action have been awarded posthumous citizenship since September 2001.

Section 329A of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides for grants of posthumous citizenship to certain members of the U.S. Armed Forces who served honorably during a designated period of hostilities and died in combat or from injuries. Other provisions of law extend benefits for naturalization and immigration purposes to surviving spouses, children, and parents.

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The 2004 policy changes have allowed USCIS to hold naturalization ceremonies at U.S. military bases around the world.
Revisions in the U.S. citizenship law in 2004 have allowed USCIS to conduct naturalization interviews and ceremonies for foreign-born U.S. armed forces members serving at military bases abroad. According to USCIS data from April 2008, more than 5,050 foreign-born service members have become citizens during overseas military naturalization ceremonies while on active duty in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Kenya, as well as in the Pacific aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.

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Sources

Bush, George W. 2002. Executive Order. "Expedited Naturalization Executive Order." July 3. Available online.

The White House. 2002. "Fact Sheet: Honoring Members of America's Armed Services." Available online.

Senate Committee on Armed Services. 2006. "Contributions of Immigrants to the U.S. Military." 109th Cong., 2nd sess., July 10.

Rhem, Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. 2002. "No Mandatory Wait Period for Service Members to Become Citizens." American Forces Information Service. July 30. Available online. Available December 12, 2006.

USCIS. 2008. "USCIS Naturalizes New Citizen Soldiers." USCIS Today, April. Available online.

USCIS. 2006. "President Bush and Director González Welcome New Citizen American Heroes." USCIS Today, August.

USCIS. 2006. "On Behalf of a Grateful Nation." 2006. USCIS Today, December.