Expedited Citizenship for Immigrant Soldiers: Tribute or Bounty?

Article excerpt

The post 9/11 era has been marked by heightened anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States as revealed by a 2006 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (1) in which 53% of the public said they believed illegal immigrants should be mandated to return to their native countries. The results of the survey also revealed that the public does not favor maintaining current levels of legal immigration, 37% favored keeping with present level and 40% declared it should be reduced. The period following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon coincides with the War on Terror.

In the context of war, there is one group of immigrants that is commonly embraced by the public regardless of their immigration status: Foreign-born Soldiers serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. In the last six years, the White House, Congress, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security have implemented policies to expedite the naturalization process of eligible servicemen and women. Yet, some contend that most of these soldiers are only truly embraced by the public after they have sacrificed life or limb for their adoptive country. With the backdrop of negative attitudes toward immigrants following the attacks of September 11, 2001, granting citizenship to fallen soldiers is often perceived by their surviving relatives as hypocritical on the part of the government; "on one side, they're sending them to war. On the other, they want higher fences on the border so Mexicans don't come." (2)

According to a report by Jeanne Batalova (3) of the Migration Policy Institute, there are currently over 65,000 foreign-born individuals serving in the U.S. Armed Services. The presence of foreign-born Soldiers in the U.S. military creates a convergence of human migration and national interests that forces us to look at immigration and citizenship through different lenses than those most commonly employed by policy makers and the media. At play are, the definition--or redefinition--of citizenship, the role of the U.S. military as an agent of social change, and the development of immigration policies informed by honest appraisals of the needs and desires of immigrants and the American socio-economic system.

Foreign-born soldiers have served with distinction in every American armed conflict since the Revolutionary War. In most instances, people agree that the mere willingness to die for the country warrants the efforts of streamlining the naturalization process for those who serve honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces (4) but were born on foreign soil and are categorized as immigrants by the definitions contained in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) (5). Nonetheless, others warn of the dangers of presenting citizenship as a bounty thus creating an Army of mercenaries (6) or a disguised draft aimed at non citizens, a vulnerable sector in American society. (7)

For the purpose of this paper, the terms immigrant, non-citizen, and foreign-born will be used interchangeably to denote those Soldiers who were born in a country other than the United States and who enlisted in the Armed Services prior to filing for naturalization.

Citizenship and Military Service

In the United States, citizenship has been traditionally tied to the birth right principles of Jus sanguinis--blood right--or Jus soli--land right. The first acknowledges one's lineage and the second the geographic location of one's birth. For those who were not born in the territory belonging to the United States nor to an American parent, the law affords the possibility of becoming a citizen that as first proposed in 1790 was very closely tied to the principle of Jus soli in that it required permanent presence in the land for a given period of time. (8) Wong and Cho (2006) (9) propose that the criteria for adjudicating citizenship and nationality through naturalization is now marked by a third guiding principle which the authors address as Jus Meritum; citizenship acquired in exchange for service, more specifically, military service. …

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