Over time, the United States has slowly made it easier for immigrants to serve and to naturalize expeditiously while serving, to our benefit. The Trump administration, though, has reversed any such progress, diminishing the meaning of service — with far-reaching impacts on the force going forward.
Since its early days, the United States has welcomed service members born elsewhere, first by sheer numerical necessity, to help fill a need of manpower and experienced officers, and more recently in search of critical skills for modern challenges. Today, naturalized citizens and legal immigrants are eligible to serve and pursue expedited naturalization. Any path into the military that deviates from the perceived “norm” of the American-born soldier or sailor are ultimately a trade-off: Can such an individual be successfully absorbed into the military machine? The Pentagon is not taking a romantic, Emma Lazarus-tinged view of service, but rather making a calculation of need vs. risk: need for basic recruits or high-demand technical and international skills, balanced against risk of undue foreign influence.
The math has routinely come down on the side of deliberately recruiting those born overseas. The security risk is low, the general state of military recruitment is wanting, and the skills and cultural competence of many foreign-born recruits are vital, frequently lifesaving. What this calculation does not include is the immeasurable bonus of a diverse force. From immigrants in our armed forces, Americans reap not only the superior performance of inclusive militaries, but also the dedication of men and women who seek the riskiest measure of patriotic devotion to their adopted country, often before gaining the benefits of citizenship. As retired Col. Michael Jason (born in Italy) wrote last month, committing to military service for a country where you’re not yet a citizen is an astonishing demonstration of putting “America First.”
For the fidelity of military service, the United States has long offered immigrants citizenship and acceptance. But how the government responds to the moral claim to citizenship and protection has never been so simple. Such reciprocity has been challenged culturally, bureaucratically and formally. Asian American veterans of World War I were due and denied or stripped of naturalization until 1935. In 2005, Army Reserve Sgt. Kendell Frederick was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb on his way to submit fingerprints for his naturalization application because his Army fingerprints were not accepted for this purpose; remarkably, the 2008 legislation requiring U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to reverse this policy is reportedly now again being ignored. Too many veterans fail to complete the steps for citizenship before leaving the military and find themselves without the protections of either. Hector Barajas, now an advocate for deported service members, attests he wrongly believed his citizenship was affirmed with his enlistment oath swearing allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. A 2016 ACLU report asserts that others received inaccurate information from the Defense Department about the necessary steps for naturalization or that their paperwork was lost.
On the face of it, Vindman — a naturalized Army Foreign Area Officer who has served as the director for European affairs on the National Security Council since last year — has a very different story than they do. But ultimately, they all represent the same thing: the United States falling short on its promises. Each immigrant made a bargain with our country that their service would matter more than their land of origin. And in each case, the United States failed to hold up its end.
Recent administrations and defense leaders have recognized these challenges and begun to address them with policy fixes and leadership validation. On multiple trips overseas with President Barack Obama, I watched as he administered the oath of citizenship to uniformed personnel.
The Trump administration has reversed almost all progress, out loud and with purpose. Their message to immigrant service members is the same as that to Vindman: You are foreign, you are suspect, you cannot belong.
In 2017, the Defense Department changed the policy for how lawful permanent residents join the military, requiring them to complete a background investigation and suitability screening before starting boot camp, and requiring 180 days (rather than one) of active service before eligibility for expedited naturalization. Enhanced screening is also reportedly under consideration for any recruit with foreign ties, American-born citizens included. USCIS has closed offices on military bases and shuttered international outposts that serve uniformed applicants.
Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), the recruitment program for nonpermanent residents with high-demand skills from medicine to languages, was put on hold in fall 2016 to implement new screening procedures; since then, it’s been all but shuttered by the Trump administration. In the interim, the Department of Homeland Security reportedly would not agree to protect those recruits whose visas expired while awaiting screening or formal residency status from deportation. Hundreds of recruits found themselves in an extended holding pattern awaiting screening, lawsuit resolution or discharge with distinctly shaky security concerns, such as relatives in an allied military.
Trump administration policies and deliberate inattention have also resulted in increased deportations for veterans and undocumented military family members and could even impact active-duty forces. As a result, far fewer lawful permanent residents are seeking military service and expedited citizenship, and they are now less likely than civilians to have their applications for naturalization approved.
Defenders of Trump policies justify stringent screening and ruthless removal policies on the basis of security and rule following, which might hold up if either was pursued in good faith. But by the Pentagon’s own admission, a single MAVNI recruit has been charged with failing to register as a foreign agent over the course of the program’s 10 years. An unreleased Rand Corp. report “found no evidence that the Mavni program had caused any security problems … the program’s recruits were generally better educated and performed better than the average enlisted soldier,” the New York Times wrote. Immigrant recruits face far higher barriers than American-born recruits with real security risks, such as white supremacist links. These new screening procedures are embarrassingly inconsistent and removed recruits like Zicheng Li for foreign ties — sometimes the very foreign ties they believed they were recruited for.
New procedures have made it more difficult for qualified service members to file for naturalization, with their new units not educated on their role in the naturalization process, and new policies requiring senior military commanders to sign paperwork have put an undue burden on applicants. Naturalized recruits have found themselves subject to shifting policies denying them security clearances without cause. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is required to consider a veteran’s service, health and other factors when considering deportation; a new report found that agents are largely unaware of or not following this policy.
None of this makes America safer.
The Trump administration changed the calculus of assessing immigrant service; the trade-off is no longer security vs. the benefits of a diverse force. Instead, the core assessment is how far these anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric can go before the strong and diverse force America requires is no longer possible.
Throughout its history, the U.S. military has reluctantly and with real ugliness expanded the pool of who may serve and whose service is valued. It has also been exponentially rewarded for redefining the standard recruit to include women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and immigrants. The military now relies on the adage that the only thing that matters about who is in foxhole, or a cyber cell, or a submarine is whether the person next to you can do the job. Gradually, military leaders have recognized that Americans are lucky to welcome a melting pot of uniforms, and that the service of those who fought hardest to join — like Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union and faced tragedy and hardships along the way — should be cherished. More than any other great power today, the United States can celebrate its ability to mobilize the diversity of its population.
Trump’s policies run the risk of overturning these key American advantages. Personnel decisions that imply some service is lesser than others — whether due to heritage, gender, identities or occupational specialty — are ultimately corrosive to national security. There are obvious risks in telling immigrants that the United States does not value them. Any recruit whose identity has only been recently accepted into the ranks will rightfully question whether their own service will be made second-class once more, or if, like Vindman, they will find themselves accused of treason on morning television. And beyond that, who wants to join a team where the rules are so easily reversed, where heritage matters more than service, where the values portrayed by recruitment policies defy what you’ve been taught is a competitive advantage? To see Vindman vilified for the act of choosing to wear the uniform of a nation he was not born in diminishes the act of service.
The bargain entered into between the U.S. government and uniformed personnel is complex and emotionally charged. To swear over one’s body to the protection and defense of the Constitution demands that this purpose be larger than oneself. The Trump administration’s policies will shrink the pool of people able to take this oath, even when willing, and willing, even when able. In doing so, they made the oath’s magnitude and meaning smaller. We, and they, deserve a better deal.
An earlier version of this story misstated the charge against one MAVNI recruit. The recruit was charged with failing to register as a foreign agent, not espionage.