For non-citizen service members, military service historically has provided a path to U.S. citizenship. But during the past four years, that expedited route to naturalization has been littered with speed bumps.
Army Reserve Spc. Cesar Vargas, 37, has hit many of them. Vargas grew up in New York City as an undocumented immigrant. As a teenager, he wanted to join the military but was told he could not enlist because of his citizenship status.
“Being told I couldn’t join the military because I was undocumented was demoralizing, especially because I always thought I could be anything when I was a child,” Vargas said in an email interview while on pre-deployment training. “It was even harder after the 9/11 attacks as I wanted to show I was willing to serve the country that had given my family an opportunity to have a better life.”
Despite being unable to enlist, Vargas continued his pursuit of the American dream. He graduated college and received a law degree from City University of New York in 2011. But after passing the New York State bar exam, his application to practice law was rejected based on his lack of legal status. After a multi-year court battle, Vargas won a precedent-setting victory and was admitted to the state bar.
His barrier to joining the military fell in 2019 when Vargas gained permanent residency status through marriage. Vargas enlisted the day after receiving his “green card.” He was the distinguished honor graduate of his recruit training class and has served honorably ever since as a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear specialist. Though he has completed all steps for expedited naturalization, Vargas has yet to receive his citizenship.
“It’s another example how our immigration system is broken,” said Vargas, who is legislative director to the chair of the Committee on Immigration at the New York City Council. “I already submitted my citizenship application and have even done the civic and language exams. The last step is the swearing ceremony. However, under this [Trump] administration, immigrants have been subject to layers of (unnecessary) scrutiny.”
The Immigration and Nationality Act grants non-citizen service members who serve honorably in the U.S. military during wartime the right to an expedited naturalization process. Since 9/11, more than 100,000 non-citizen service members have taken this route to citizenship. But the Trump administration mandated non-citizens on active duty must serve for six months or a year if in the reserves before applying for the expedited process. Since then, the number of foreign-born service members receiving citizenship through naturalization has dropped nearly 60%, from 8,885 in 2016 to 3,760 in 2019.
As a soldier and immigration attorney, Vargas shares a uniform and commitment to immigration advocacy with his wife, Yesenia Mata, a member of the Army Reserve military police. Mata, 31, is executive director of Staten Island community-job center La Colmena, which serves day laborers, domestic workers, and other low-wage earners. Mata’s work with deported veterans has given her firsthand knowledge of the injustices the current military immigration process can inflict on those who are among the most willing to answer the country’s call to duty.
“I would ask them, would you serve again?” Mata said. “And despite what had happened, many would respond, ‘Yes, I would serve again given the opportunity because I love this country.’”
Since her marriage, Mata’s efforts on behalf of non-citizen service members have taken on even greater meaning.
“My husband’s an attorney. I have seen how hard it has been for him while he’s been waiting for his citizenship. How hard it has been since these new laws have been implemented,” she said. “On a personal level, it hurts.”
Vargas has been subject to ongoing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) background investigations despite already passing the required background checks for his green card and military enlistment. “I could literally become a citizen tomorrow but for these delays,” he states.
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For service members, citizenship takes on added importance. It brings not only the right to vote, to sponsor non-citizen family members, and to travel with a U.S. passport, but it also provides military members stationed overseas with access to consular services and protections. In addition, non-U.S. citizens cannot obtain a security clearance, making them ineligible for the officer corps and many enlisted military jobs.
When the Trump administration removed USCIS naturalization centers at three Army recruit training centers in 2017, Mata argues immigrant enlistees lost access to valuable resources on the naturalization process. Revisions also were made to the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which began in 2009 and offered immigrant healthcare workers and those with specialized language skills a fast track to citizenship. While the Obama administration had stopped taking MAVNI applications due to security concerns, the Trump administration tightened the vetting process for those already accepted, leaving many applicants in legal limbo.
Mata maintains the military needs to do a better job educating foreign-born enlistees and military members in general about the paths to citizenship for foreign-born enlistees.
“My husband is able to understand the process, but many who enlist are very young. They don’t have that legal education,” she said. “Even sometimes within the military, the sergeants themselves don’t know [the naturalization regulations for non-citizen service members].”
The daughter of immigrants, Mata completed her master’s degree in business before following in her brother’s footsteps and joining the Army Reserve alongside her husband in 2019.
“My mother and father always believed it was important for us to give back to our community and for us to serve our country. Those were the values I grew up with,” said Mata, who credits military service with advancing her veteran advocacy work.
Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq War combat veteran who has made her mark as a staunch advocate for veterans, remains hard-pressed to understand the continued roadblocks facing foreign-born service members.
“We as a nation are missing out on a skillset, on a group of people who could really help our military become stronger and more able to interact on a global scale and help strengthen our position as a global leader in security and defense,” Duckworth said during a November panel discussion sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Office for Military-Affiliated Communities. “It boggles the mind that we wouldn’t welcome immigrants into the military and provide them with citizenship.”
Duckworth repeatedly has introduced legislation that would strengthen VA healthcare services for non-citizen veterans and prohibit the deportation of veterans who have served honorably and are non-violent offenders. She is confident the incoming Biden administration will green light many of her proposals, which to date have failed to garner bipartisan support in Congress.
“There’s a whole basket of pieces of legislation that I’ve introduced that all could be executive orders by the president,” said Duckworth, who maintains immigrant service members should receive permanent resident status after completing basic training and be fast-tracked to citizenship after honorably completing an initial tour of duty. “I know they are seriously looking at all of those because there are some great folks on the transition team advising the president-elect.”
But Duckworth argues individual citizens have the most power to bring change.
“Advocate for these causes with your local elected,” she said. “Make this an issue they have to talk about and make it real. You can see in this latest election the rise in particular of the Latinx community. You saw what happened in Florida and Texas and Arizona and New Mexico, so there is additional power within the community … Understand the political environment we are in and understand there is power to be had in that political environment.”
Vargas, meanwhile, is confident his work on behalf of immigrant service members has only begun.
“I love this country and I am proud to serve in uniform,” he said. “But we can do better and must do better to support our service members and their families, not just in words but in concrete policies. And once I become a citizen, I hope to realize another dream of finally becoming an officer in the Judge Advocate General Corps, so I can help immigrants in our military and ensure they have a voice. Also, I would like to tell my story of an immigrant that started as a private and became an officer.”