May 29, 2020

In April 2020, the ACLU, ACLU of Southern California, and ACLU of District of Columbia filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of military service members challenging a 2017 Trump administration policy blocking their expedited path to citizenship.

The ACLU filed the case in the federal district court for the District of Columbia on behalf of six non-citizen service members, who represent a class of thousands in uniform. Five plaintiffs are serving active duty on various bases in the United States and abroad. The plaintiffs include long-time U.S. permanent residents and one recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Through the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), Congress granted non-citizen service members serving honorably in the U.S. military during wartime the right to naturalize expeditiously, waiving many of the typical requirements for citizenship. In doing so, Congress intended for non-citizens to naturalize almost immediately upon entering service and prior to deployment. Since 9/11, over 100,000 non-citizens have taken this expedited path to citizenship to naturalize on the basis of their military service.

The lawsuit challenges an October 2017 Trump administration policy change, which deprives service members of this path to citizenship by preventing them from obtaining an honorable service certification required to apply for naturalization. For decades, non-citizen service members could obtain these certifications almost immediately upon entering service. Now, they must wait months or more because they must complete lengthier, more invasive background screening and satisfy a minimum service duration. The policy also significantly delays the certification process by severely restricting the number of military officials who can issue the certifications.

In the year following the policy’s implementation, the government reported a 72-percent drop in military service members’ naturalization applications from pre-policy levels.

The new Defense Department policy violates the INA, which authorizes the Department only to undertake the simple administrative task of verifying whether a non-citizen has served honorably. The policy also violates the Administrative Procedure Act because the Defense Department can provide no rationale for its new rules and because these rules were adopted without public notice or comment.

As a result of the Trump administration policy, non-citizen service members serving overseas face heightened risks due to, for instance, lack of access to consular services and protection typically available to citizen counterparts. The policy has also prevented service members from enjoying the privileges of U.S. citizenship, including the right to vote, sponsor immediate family members, and travel with a U.S. passport. Non-citizen service members with uncertain immigration statuses, which includes two of our clients, must live in fear that they may be placed in removal proceedings and deported, notwithstanding their ongoing military service. And without citizenship, service members are unable to advance their careers because specialized and more senior roles in the military are often reserved for U.S. citizens.

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