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Samma v. U.S. Department of Defense—Lawsuit Challenging Policy Denying U.S. Military Service Members Expedited Path to Citizenship

Status: Ongoing
Last Update: January 27, 2021

What's at Stake

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. In August 2020, a federal district court certified the class and ruled that the policy’s requirement that non-citizens serve a minimum period of time before they can apply for citizenship is unlawful.

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 (DACA).

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 deprived 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. Under the Trump administration policy, they had to wait months or more in order to satisfy a minimum service duration. The policy also significantly delayed the certification process by severely restricting the number of military officials who could 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.

As the district court held, the new Defense Department policy violated the INA, which authorized the Department only to undertake the simple administrative task of verifying whether a non-citizen has served honorably. Likewise, the Court held that the policy also violated the Administrative Procedure Act because the Defense Department could provide no rationale for its new rules.

As a result of the Trump administration policy, non-citizens 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. 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.

The district court ruled in favor of our clients in August 2020. It also certified a class of service members similarly situated to our clients, who also benefit from the Court’s ruling. The Trump Administration appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, but the district court’s ruling currently remains in effect while that appeal progresses. This means that the Defense Department cannot apply the policy’s minimum service duration requirement to any members of the class.

If you think you are a member of the class that is being prevented by the Trump Administration’s policy from obtaining an honorable service certification, please see this page.