Military Service Members Back in Court to Restore Their Pathway to Citizenship After Pentagon Continues Defying Order

August 18, 2021 10:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The Department of Defense is defying a federal court order to restore an expedited path to citizenship for U.S. military service members, according to a motion filed in federal district court today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In August 2020, in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of a class of thousands of U.S. military service members, a federal court struck down a Trump administration policy requiring service members to serve for six months or a year before they could obtain a military certification required to apply for naturalization. The court also ordered military officials to process class member requests for this certification within 30 days.

Over the past year, numerous class members at multiple U.S. Army installations consistently report that military officials continue to impose these unlawful requirements and obstruct service members from seeking U.S. citizenship in direct violation of the court’s order. The new court filing comes after ACLU negotiations with the Biden administration reached an impasse because the Department of Defense has failed to take actions necessary to fix the issues faced by service members.

“Our clients are deeply dismayed that the Pentagon continues to block military service members’ path to citizenship in direct defiance of the court’s order and in violation of federal law,” said Scarlet Kim, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “We’ve repeatedly presented the Pentagon with evidence of its non-compliance and proposed reasonable solutions, like identifying an official to assist service members whose chains of command refuse to help them obtain the military certification necessary for the citizenship process. Instead, the Pentagon has done virtually nothing and subjected service members to Kafkaesque ordeals that have further delayed their attempts to become U.S. citizens as Congress promised.”

In the motion filed today, the ACLU documents the Pentagon’s systemic failures to comply with the court ruling, including:

  • At four out of five of the Army’s basic training bases, service members have been repeatedly told they need to complete the unlawful service requirements struck down by the court in order to be eligible for naturalization. Service members at other Army installations have also been told they need to meet the unlawful requirements;
  • Many service members have been waiting months for the Defense Department to process their requests for certification, well past the 30-day timeline required by the court. One class member waited 10 months, eight of which he served abroad;
  • Since September 2020, the ACLU has repeatedly raised military officials’ failure to comply with the court’s order to the Pentagon. In response, the Defense Department insisted service members press their chains of command to resolve the issue, even though their military superiors are defying the court order and even when class members have presented the court’s order to their superiors. The Defense Department also gave service members futile instructions: to seek assistance by writing to email inboxes that were ineffective or invalid, or visit their legal assistance offices, only to find the offices would not help them; and
  • During recent negotiations, the Defense Department insisted class members, who are in training and at the start of their military careers, should defy their own chains of command and go directly to the highest level officials at their base or file a complaint in the military justice system before it will step in to address non-compliance.

As a result, many service members entitled to U.S. citizenship have been unable to apply for naturalization. These delays mean service members cannot enjoy the privileges of citizenship that Congress intended for them, including exercising the right to vote or to travel with a U.S. passport, even while deployed abroad. Many service members are also unable to access professional advancement opportunities because many roles, including more specialized positions that suit their skill sets, are only available to U.S. citizens.

In June, the Pentagon issued a memorandum temporarily rescinding the Trump administration’s policy pending a review. Despite this temporary rescission, the Defense Department still refuses to abide by the court’s order, making it even more critical for the court to intervene.

In its motion on behalf of service members, the ACLU is asking the court to demand an explanation for the Pentagon’s failures, and order it to ensure compliance with the court order and federal law.

Additional background on the case, Samma v. Department of Defense, is online here:

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