You don’t need to be a US citizen to serve in the military, but you do need to be a lawful permanent resident and currently live in the United States. Unfortunately, that means an immigrant cannot join the military without a Green Card.
Legal immigrants with a valid visa will be turned away by military recruiters, and undocumented immigrants who attempt to enlist may be reported to immigration officials. In rare cases where an immigrant without a Green Card is enlisted by mistake, the immigrant will be discharged as soon as someone discovers the processing error. If the enlisted immigrant is undocumented, he or she will likely face deportation proceedings.
Can an Immigrant Serve in the Military?
Legal immigrants are welcome to join the military once they immigrate to the United States with a valid visa and obtain a Green Card. In fact, about 8,000 non-citizens join the military each year, and it’s estimated that 4% of active-duty military members are non-citizens.
Can DACA Participants Enlist in the Military?
There is a common misbelief that DACA participants—undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children—can join the military as part of the DACA program. DACA participants are authorized to work and seek higher education opportunities, but they cannot join the military without a Green Card.
There is a slim chance that Congress will expand DACA participants’ rights beyond employment authorization and higher education, in which case joining the military may be a viable option, but until then, DACA participants should not attempt to join the military.
Special Exceptions for Immigrants Without Green Cards
There are special exceptions to the Green Card requirement for immigrants who wish to join the military, but they are extremely limited.
First, Pacific Islanders from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau are allowed to join the military under international treaties. Second, some Canadian citizens with American Indian heritage may join the military, as they are naturally treated as Green Card holders under US immigration laws.
In both cases, the recruit would need to provide documentation to prove their special immigration status to the military recruiter.
Until 2014, there was another option known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI). Under this program, non-citizens with special skills—such as health care professionals or individuals with special language and cultural skills—were permitted to enlist without a Green Card to help the military meet its recruitment goals in high-need areas. Despite widespread success, the program was unfortunately suspended in 2014 pending a Pentagon review.
How Would a Military Recruiter Know an Immigration Status?
When an individual joins the military, the recruiter will run their name through a national immigration database as part of the standard screening process. If the recruiter discovers that the prospective recruit does not have a Green Card or otherwise qualify for an exemption, they will be dismissed.
Military recruiters are not required to report undocumented immigrants to immigration authorities, but they often do. As such, there are no circumstances where an undocumented immigrant should attempt to join the military, as doing so could trigger removal proceedings.
Non-Citizen Restrictions in the Military
Non-citizens cannot obtain security clearances, so they are unfortunately limited in the roles that they can perform within the military. Due to this restriction, Green Card holders cannot serve as commission or warrant officers. That said, there are plenty of military jobs available that do not require security clearances or officer-status, so there are ample opportunities in the military for Green Card holders to launch their careers.
Accelerated Naturalization Through Military Service
The great news is that if you have a Green Card and join the military, you may qualify for accelerated naturalized citizenship. Rather than waiting 3 – 5 years to fulfill the standard US residency requirement, you can apply for naturalization after one year of military service during peacetime, or immediately after joining during wartime.
As Operation Enduring Freedom is ongoing (until the President issues an executive order to end the conflict), immigrants who enlist today are eligible to apply for naturalization as soon as they enter the military.
If you meet all of the requirements for naturalization in either section 328 or 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), here’s how you can apply for naturalized citizenship after joining the military:
- Speak with a designated USCIS liaison – most military installations should have a designated USCIS liaison assigned to the community service center.
- Request Form N-426, Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service – in order to qualify for accelerated processing, you’ll need to prove your honorable military service with Form N-426. Request a completed and signed copy of Form N-426 through your chain of command with the help of the USCIS liaison.
- Complete Form N-400, Application for Naturalization – this is the formal petition for naturalization, so it’s safe to say this is the most important part of your application packet. If you need help understanding any aspect of the application, speak with the USCIS liaison or consult with an immigration attorney.
- File your application for naturalization – military service members can submit their applications to USCIS at PO Box 4446, Chicago, IL 60680. USCIS will issue you a receipt with a case number and information on how to track your case online.
- Submit fingerprinting – if you were fingerprinted for a previous immigration application, you don’t need to worry about this step. Otherwise, you’ll need to visit an Application Support Center or meet with a mobile fingerprint unit the next time they visit your military installation. If you are overseas, you may instead submit 2 properly completed FD-258 fingerprint cards taken by military police, a DHS official, or a consular officer at a US Embassy or consulate.
- Complete a naturalization interview – USCIS will contact you to schedule a naturalization interview at a local USCIS field office, or at the US Embassy or consulate if you are overseas. If you’d like to request a specific location, you may attach a cover letter to your application. At the interview, an officer will assess your eligibility for naturalization and test your knowledge of US civics and English.
- Attend an Oath Ceremony – when you pass your interview, the officer will inform you of when you can attend an Oath Ceremony to take the Oath of Allegiance. At the Ceremony, you will exchange your Green Card for a Certificate of Naturalization.
Call our Immigration team at(480) 626-2388 to discuss your case today.
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