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One Year Later, U.S. Service Members Are Still Awaiting Their Promised Pathway to Citizenship

United States Navy sailors and Marines from ten different countries take an oath of citizenship during a ceremony for members of the military aboard the USS Midway Museum Friday, July 2, 2021, in San Diego.
A federal court ordered the U.S. military to stop implementing a Trump-era policy that blocked a path to citizenship — but our clients are still waiting for them to comply.
United States Navy sailors and Marines from ten different countries take an oath of citizenship during a ceremony for members of the military aboard the USS Midway Museum Friday, July 2, 2021, in San Diego.
Sana Mayat,
Former Nadine Strossen Fellow,
Scarlet Kim,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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August 20, 2021

Vincent Goo immigrated to the United States from South Korea when he was just 10 years old. Last year, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and he currently serves on active duty as a soldier in Germany. But despite serving this country for more than a year, Vincent still hasn’t been able to obtain citizenship through his military service, as promised by Congress.

Vincent’s dilemma is particularly maddening because for many months, the U.S. military continued to subject him to a Trump administration policy that was struck down by a federal court last year, in response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of a class of thousands of immigrants who are serving in the military. This week the ACLU returned to court on behalf of these service members and asked it to enforce its order.

For hundreds of years, and currently under the Immigration and Nationality Act, federal law has allowed non-citizens serving during a period of armed conflict to naturalize almost immediately upon entering service. This expedited process allows these service members to enjoy the privileges of citizenship while serving this country, including exercising the right to vote and to travel with a U.S. passport, even while deployed abroad. But Trump’s unlawful policy required immigrant service members to meet new requirements, including serving a minimum period of time, before the military would issue the administrative documents attesting to their honorable service necessary for them to seek citizenship. In its August 2020 ruling, the court ruled that the policy violated federal law and was “arbitrary and capricious” for upending decades of prior military practice without any rationale.

The court also prohibited the Department of Defense from subjecting any service member to the policy and ordered it to process the certifications necessary for service members to apply for citizenship within 30 days upon request. Yet almost a year after the court’s order, many service members continue to report to us that the military is imposing the unlawful policy and, even when they are able to request their certifications, is forcing them to wait far beyond the timeline ordered by the court.

For Vincent, the delays stretched for almost a year. Vincent sought the certification he needed to seek expedited naturalization as soon as he began his service, and again just six days after the court struck down the unlawful Trump policy. He should have been one of the first service members to benefit from the order. Instead, Vincent waited another 11 months to obtain these documents, eight of which he served abroad. Recently, he finally obtained his certification, only after the ACLU notified the government it intended to return to court to seek compliance with the court’s order. Other service members are still waiting for their certifications and continuing to serve, like Vincent did, without the protection or promise of U.S. citizenship.

In our request to the court filed this week, we describe how military officials have refused, for months, to comply with the order. For example, at several of the Army’s basic training bases, service members have been repeatedly told that they need to complete the minimum periods of service vacated by the court in order to be eligible for naturalization. Service members at other military installations have received similar instructions.

The ACLU has repeatedly alerted the government to these failures to comply and has urged it to take specific steps, such as appointing a specific individual to help troubleshoot service members’ certification requests. But the government has refused each of our proposals. Instead of helping service members and ensuring that military officials comply with the court’s order, the government has subjected class members to Kafkaesque ordeals and further delays to their attempts to become U.S. citizens.

The government has repeatedly insisted, for example, that service members push back against their chains of command, even when those very chains of command explicitly apply the unlawful policy to them, or to seek help from their legal assistance offices, some of which have turned them away and others of which have simply parroted the unlawful policy back to them. More recently, the government suggested service members should defy their chains of command and directly approach the highest level officials at their bases, or file formal complaints through the military justice system against their commanding officers. These are unrealistic avenues for new service members to pursue.

Vincent’s experience is a case in point. The ACLU first flagged his situation to the government in October 2020. In response, the government connected Vincent to the legal assistance office on the base where he was then stationed. But that office provided Vincent with an incorrect certification, which was then rejected by U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services when he applied for citizenship. Vincent tried to obtain a newly corrected certification for months through multiple channels, including with the assistance of another attorney, all to no avail. The government finally facilitated his certification after we informed it of our clients’ intent to return to court. But Vincent’s situation is not an anomaly. Many other service members are still waiting.

As a result of the government’s failure to follow the court’s order, many service members entitled to citizenship have faced unconscionable delays to naturalization. Some service members, who have lost their immigration status while awaiting citizenship, fear placement in removal proceedings and even deportation. Many are also unable to advance their military careers because certain roles are only available to U.S. citizens.

The ACLU has asked the court to demand an explanation from the Department of Defense and order it to take specific steps to meaningfully implement the order and federal law. Our government promised thousands of service members an expedited path to citizenship. It is past time that they receive it.

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