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Immigrant Veterans in the United States

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Immigrant Veterans in the United States

Two men in military attire stand with a veteran

U.S. Air Force veteran Paul Rojas visits with airmen. (Photo: Jazmin Smith/U.S. Air Force)

Immigrants have long enlisted in all branches of the U.S. military, beginning with the Revolutionary War. The foreign born represented 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. Today, the number of veterans who were born outside the United States stands at approximately 530,000, representing 3 percent of all 18.6 million veterans nationwide. Additionally, almost 1.9 million veterans are the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Together, the 2.4 million veterans of immigrant origin, either because they themselves are immigrants or are the children of immigrants, account for 13 percent of all veterans.

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 eligible to serve if the secretary of a specific military branch determines that such enlistment is vital to the national interest.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau (the 2018 Annual Social and Economic Supplement [ASEC] of the Current Population Survey [CPS] and the 2017 American Community Survey [ACS]), this Spotlight provides information on the population of immigrant veterans (ages 17 and older) in the United States, focusing on its size, top countries of origin, racial and ethnic composition, and socioeconomic characteristics. It is important to note that the Census Bureau data come from household-based surveys and are thus likely to undercount people who are homeless.

Definitions

The term “foreign born” refers to people residing in the United States at the time of the census who were not U.S. citizens at birth. The foreign-born population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents (LPRs), refugees and asylees, legal nonimmigrants (including those on student, work, or certain other temporary visas), and persons residing in the country without authorization. We use the terms “immigrants” and “foreign born” interchangeably.

The terms “U.S. born” and “native born” are used interchangeably and refer to persons with U.S. citizenship at birth, including persons born in Puerto Rico or abroad born to a U.S.-citizen parent.

The term “veterans” refers to persons age 17 and older who served in U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard in a time of war or peace, but who were not in the armed forces at the time the Census Bureau survey was administered.

Historical Trends

Over the past decade, the total number of veterans has declined, from 26.1 million in 1995 to 18.6 million in 2018. The decrease is in part attributable to the drop in enlistments that began in the early 1990s and in part to the dying off of veterans who served during and after World War II. The number of foreign-born veterans has fluctuated slightly since 1995, when it stood at 551,000. The number increased to 597,000 in 2005 and then declined to 527,000 in 2018. The immigrant share increased slightly from 2 percent of all veterans in 1995 to 3 percent in 2018 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Total Number of Veterans of U.S. Armed Forces and the Immigrant Share (%), 1995-2018

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of U.S. Census Bureau 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2018 Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) of the Current Population Survey (CPS).

Country of Birth

Mexico and the Philippines were the top two countries of birth for the 527,000 immigrant veterans in 2018, representing 17 percent each, with 92,000 and 91,000 veterans respectively. Other top origin countries were Germany (24,000), Colombia (20,000), and the United Kingdom (19,000). (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Top Ten Countries of Birth of Foreign-Born Veterans in the U.S. Armed Forces, 2018

Source: MPI analysis of Census Bureau 2018 CPS ASEC.

Citizenship

The vast majority of immigrant veterans as of 2018 were naturalized citizens: 83 percent (or 436,000).

During times of peace, noncitizen members of the armed forces may obtain citizenship after one year of military service. 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 immediately eligible for U.S. citizenship. In a July 2002 executive order, President George W. Bush designated September 11, 2001 as the start date of a period of hostilities, and noncitizen military personnel serving on or after that date became eligible for citizenship immediately after enlistment. Furthermore, revisions to U.S. citizenship law in 2004 allowed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to conduct naturalization interviews and ceremonies for U.S. armed forces members serving at military bases abroad.

Nearly 7,000 immigrants became U.S. citizens through military naturalization in fiscal year (FY) 2017.

Click here for an interactive data tool showing the annual number of naturalizations (civilian and military) in the United States, from FY 1910-2017.

Additionally, a program launched in 2008 called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) allowed eligible noncitizens (including refugees, asylees, and certain nonimmigrant visa holders maintaining their legal status for two years or more) with in-demand skills, particularly in health care and critical languages, to join the military in exchange for expedited U.S. citizenship. Approximately 10,400 noncitizens have been recruited through this program since its establishment.

However, in 2016, the Obama administration ordered enhanced background screening of MAVNI recruits because of perceived national-security concerns, delaying enlistments under the program. Under the Trump administration, additional background checks were introduced in 2017. The combined actions have effectively frozen the program. The new requirements do not allow MAVNI recruits to start their basic military training until their background checks are complete, which takes more than a year. Recent estimates suggest that about 1,000 MAVNI recruits are awaiting clearance to begin their basic training.

Race and Ethnicity

The racial and ethnic composition of foreign-born veterans is much more diverse than that of U.S.-born veterans. Close to two-thirds in 2018 identified as Hispanic or Asian/Pacific Islander (37 percent and 28 percent, respectively), and 23 percent self-identified as White (see Figure 3). In contrast, approximately 79 percent of U.S.-born veterans self-identified as White, followed by 12 percent as Black, 6 percent as Hispanic, and 1 percent as Asian/Pacific Islander.

Figure 3. Race and Ethnicity of U.S. Military Veterans, by Nativity, 2018

Note: White, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian, and multiracial individuals refer to non-Hispanics.
Source: MPI analysis of Census Bureau 2018 CPS ASEC.

Among U.S.-born Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander veterans, significant shares came from immigrant families: 57 percent of native-born Asian/Pacific Islander veterans and 46 percent of U.S.-born Hispanic veterans had at least one immigrant parent.

English Proficiency and Language Diversity

Compared to the overall U.S. foreign-born population, immigrant veterans are much less likely to be Limited English Proficient (LEP). According to the 2017 ACS, the most recent data with information on both English proficiency and veteran status, 20 percent of immigrant veterans were LEP, versus 49 percent of the total foreign-born population.

Note: Limited English proficiency refers to those who indicated on the ACS questionnaire that they spoke English less than “very well.”

In 2017, 38 percent of immigrant veterans reported speaking only English at home. The remainder spoke a wide range of languages, including Spanish (26 percent); Tagalog (9 percent); Chinese and French/Haitian Creole (3 percent each); and Vietnamese, German, or Korean (2 percent each).

Gender and Marital Status

Although the overall presence of women in the armed forces—and subsequently in the veteran population—has historically been low, women accounted for a somewhat higher share among immigrant veterans than the native born. In 2018, approximately 11 percent of foreign-born veterans were female, compared to 9 percent of native-born veterans.

Immigrant veterans were also more likely to be married and less likely to be divorced compared to native-born veterans, reflecting a similar pattern among nonveterans. As of 2018, 67 percent of immigrant veterans were married, versus 64 percent of native veterans. Approximately 12 percent of foreign-born veterans were divorced, compared to 15 percent of U.S.-born veterans.

Age, Education, and Employment

Among veterans, immigrants are slightly younger than the native born. In 2018, the average age of foreign-born veterans was 57 years old, compared to 62 years old for those born in the United States.

In general, immigrant veterans (ages 25 and older) have higher educational attainment compared to their U.S.-born counterparts: They are more likely to be college graduates and less likely to be high school dropouts. Immigrant veterans are also more educated than nonveteran immigrant adults. As of 2018, approximately 37 percent of immigrant veterans had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 31 percent of native-born veterans. About 29 percent of native-born veterans had a high school diploma or equivalent as their final degree in 2018, compared to 23 percent of foreign-born veterans (see Figure 4). In contrast, among nonveterans, immigrants were much more likely than the native born to have not finished high school.

Figure 4. Educational Attainment of Adults (ages 25 and older) by Veteran Status and Nativity, 2018

Source: MPI analysis of Census Bureau 2018 CPS ASEC.

Immigrant veterans participate in the civilian labor force at a higher rate than their U.S.-born counterparts. Fifty-eight percent of immigrant veterans were in the civilian labor force in 2018, as compared to 46 percent of U.S.-born veterans—though this rate was lower than for the U.S.- and foreign-born nonveteran populations (65 percent and 66 percent, respectively).

Among those in the civilian labor force, unemployment rates for veterans and nonveterans, regardless of nativity, were essentially the same, at about 4 percent.

Overall, the occupational distribution of veterans employed in civilian labor force largely resembles that of the nonveteran population. Consistent with their higher levels of educational attainment, immigrant veterans were slightly more likely in 2018 to be in management, business, science, and arts occupations (35 percent) than the nonveteran immigrants (33 percent, see Figure 5) and less likely to be employed in production, transportation, and material moving occupations (12 percent versus 16 percent).

Click here for an interactive data tool showing immigrants as a share of the total population and the civilian labor force over time.

Figure 5. Occupation of Employed Workers (ages 17 and older) by Veteran Status and Nativity, 2018

Source: MPI analysis of Census Bureau 2018 CPS ASEC.

Income and Poverty

Households headed by immigrant veterans have higher incomes than those headed by native-born veterans. In 2018, immigrant veterans had an average $91,000 household income, compared to $84,000 for native-born veteran households. For comparison, the average household incomes for native- and foreign-born nonveterans were roughly similar, at $87,000 and $84,000, respectively.

Regardless of their nativity, veterans are much less likely than nonveterans to be in poverty. In 2018, 7 percent of U.S.-born and 6 percent of foreign-born veterans lived in poverty, compared to 11 percent and 14 percent respectively for native- and foreign-born nonveterans. Because the Census Bureau data are collected on households, its surveys are likely to undercount homeless veterans. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that slightly more than 37,800 veterans were homeless on a single night in January 2018, a 5 percent decrease since 2017.

Health Insurance Coverage

In 2018, the overwhelming majority of veterans, regardless of their nativity, were covered by at least one type of health insurance (see Figure 6). In addition to Medicaid and Medicare, which are available to eligible populations regardless of veteran status, public health insurance options for veterans include TRICARE, the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA), and others. In 2018, 59 percent of foreign-born veterans and 38 percent of native-born veterans with public coverage were covered by military health-care programs.

Uninsured rates among veterans—3 percent for natives and 5 percent for immigrants—were extremely low compared to the nonveteran population.

Figure 6. Health Coverage for Adults (ages 17 and older), by Veteran Status and Nativity, 2018

Note: The sum of shares by type of insurance is likely to be greater than 100 because people may have more than one type of insurance.
Source: MPI analysis of Census Bureau 2018 CPS ASEC.

Sources

Chishti, Muzaffar, Austin Rose, and Stephen Yale-Loehr. 2019 forthcoming. Immigrants in the Military: Evolving Recruitment Needs Can Accommodate National Security Concerns. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Copp, Tara. 2018. Here’s the Bottom Line on the Future of MAVNI: Many Foreign-Born Recruits May Soon be Out. Military Times, July 6, 2018. Available online.

Reynolds, George M. and Amanda Shendruk. 2018. Demographics of the U.S. Military. Council on Foreign Relations, April 24, 2018. Available online.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2018. 2017 American Community Survey. Accessed from Steven Ruggles, Sarah Flood, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, Erin Meyer, Jose Pacas, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 9.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2019. Available Online.

---. 2019. 2018 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Accessed from Sarah Flood, Miriam King, Renae Rodgers, Steven Ruggles, and J. Robert Warren. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 6.0. [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2018. Available Online.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 2018. 2018 PIT Estimate of Veteran Homelessness in the U.S. Washington, DC: HUD. Available Online.