Non-citizen US troops sue Pentagon over slowed naturalization process

Six U.S. troops filed a class action lawsuit Friday alleging the Pentagon is blocking their ability to use an expedited process to become naturalized U.S. citizens.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of the troops, alleges a 2017 Pentagon policy has “unlawfully obstructed the ability of thousands of service members to obtain U.S. citizenship, placing them in a state of personal and professional limbo.”

Non-citizens who serve in the military are eligible for expedited citizenship under the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act. In order to qualify for the expedited process, troops must get a certification from the Pentagon that they have served honorably.

Troops used to be able to get that certification a day after starting service. But in 2017, the Pentagon changed the process, including requiring additional background screenings, limiting who can approve the certifications to the service secretaries or high-ranked officers and requiring active-duty troops to have served for at least 180 days and members of the Selected Reserve for at least a year.

The Pentagon has cited national security concerns for the additional steps, saying when the policy was announced that while it “recognizes the value of expedited U.S. citizenship achieved through military service, it is in the national interest to ensure all current and prospective service members complete security and suitability screening prior to naturalization.”

The lawsuit, though, claims the 2017 policy “makes it difficult, if not impossible, for service members to benefit from expedited naturalization.”

“The DoD’s subversion of the statutory scheme is so significant that it is now harder for many service members to naturalize through the expedited process than through the ordinary civilian process,” says the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The lawsuit says that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics showed a 72 percent drop in military naturalization applications in 2018 compared to before the new policy.

Two lawsuits have previously been filed against the policy. But those challenges were specifically on behalf of members of the Selected Reserve who enlisted through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, while the ACLU describes the new suit as the first to represent all non-citizen service members.

The plaintiffs in the new suit include Army Pfc. Ange Samma, a legal permanent resident from Burkina Faso stationed in South Korea; Army Pfc. Abner Bouomo, a legal permanent resident stationed in Hawaii; Army reservist Private Second Class Ahmad Isiaka, a legal permanent resident who has been drilling with the 644th Transportation Company in Houston, Texas, since February; and Army Private Second Class Michael Perez, a legal permanent resident stationed in Alaska.

There are also two plaintiffs identified only as Jane Doe, one an Army specialist who enlisted through the MAVNI program and the other an Army private second class. 

“The government’s policy is causing real harm to immigrant service members,” ACLU staff attorney Scarlet Kim and fellow Noor Zafar wrote in announcing the lawsuit. “The promise of citizenship Congress has made to non-citizen service members is not just an important recruitment tool. It is a moral imperative embedded in our history, values, and laws. If you are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for America, you should — and are — entitled to be an American.”

Tags American Civil Liberties Union Immigration Military service Naturalization

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