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As U.S. Armed Forces Face Recruitment Challenges & Skills Gaps, New MPI Brief Examines Historical and Potential Role for Noncitizens in Military
Press Release
Wednesday, May 22, 2019

As U.S. Armed Forces Face Recruitment Challenges & Skills Gaps, New MPI Brief Examines Historical and Potential Role for Noncitizens in Military

WASHINGTON — While foreign nationals have enlisted in the U.S. armed services throughout American history, in recent years the military has come to see noncitizens as less of an asset and more of a national security risk.

For much of U.S. history, the military has encouraged noncitizens to serve by offering the promise of expedited avenues for naturalization. However, such programs and procedures have been rolled back since September 2016 and the vetting requirements for these recruits have intensified. These changes have created such significant delays that most noncitizens who have enlisted in the past two years are still waiting to be trained or have been abruptly discharged. And some are facing deportation.

A new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) brief, Noncitizens in the U.S. Military: Navigating National Security Concerns and Recruitment Needs, examines the history of noncitizen participation in the armed services and details recent changes in military policy and vetting of noncitizens, with an assessment of their impact on current and future U.S. military needs.

Among the findings:

  • Close to 8,000 noncitizens were in the active-duty Army in 2015, representing 1.6 percent of its enlisted force. The number of foreign-born service members is much higher, as it includes many who have gained U.S. citizenship since enlisting.
  • In the past 100 years, more than 760,000 noncitizens have enlisted and obtained U.S. citizenship through military service. Naturalizations of this kind are generally highest in times of war, with peaks during and after World Wars I and II, and a smaller but steady increase since September 11, 2001.
  • More than 10,000 noncitizens have entered the military through a Defense Department program launched in 2008 called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI).
  • Amid new Defense Department background check rules, thousands of noncitizens have been kept from going to basic training and beginning their military service. Recent estimates suggest about 1,000 recruits from the MAVNI program are waiting for background check completion. And as of May 2017, more than 1,000 MAVNI recruits had seen their temporary visas expire or otherwise fallen out of legal status while waiting, leaving them vulnerable to deportation.
  • Since September 2016, more than 500 noncitizen military personnel have been abruptly discharged from their respective military branches.

The slowdown in enlistment of foreign-born members comes as the U.S. military is struggling to meet recruitment goals and facing pressing needs for expertise in critical languages, health care and cyber skills that immigrants are well suited to fill.

“Noncitizens are not, nor are they likely to become, a primary means of meeting the staffing needs of the armed services. Yet particularly in a time of recruitment shortages, noncitizen service members with in-demand qualifications and skills can make valuable contributions,” write authors Muzaffar Chishti, Austin Rose and Stephen Yale-Loehr, suggesting revival of the MAVNI program. “While thoroughly screening recruits is an important element of protecting U.S. national security, so too is ensuring a fully staffed and highly skilled fighting force.”

Read the policy brief here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/noncitizens-us-military-national-security-concerns-recruitment-needs.

For an accompanying data-rich article on immigrant veterans in the U.S. armed forces, including their numbers, national origins and much more, see: www.migrationpolicy.org/article/immigrant-veterans-united-states.


The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.