By Gabrielle Rabon, Medill, Immigrant Connect
[see companion story – Immigrant veterans should read here how to apply for citizenship. Warning: It’s not easy]
Adeyemi Gbadamosi stepped aboard the retired U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Taney, the last standing warship that fought in Pearl Harbor, on Nov. 11. He was one of 19 immigrants who participated in a naturalization ceremony aboard the vessel on Veterans Day, in one of many similar ceremonies held across the country in conjunction with the holiday. Several of the immigrants who obtained citizenship—including Gbadamosi, who served in the U.S. Navy—are current or former service members.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young commended the service members present, saying: “Regardless of the branch you served in, you all took an oath to protect, defend and preserve the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Gbadamosi felt as if he were in a dream, telling the Baltimore Sun: “This isthe best day of my life. This is the best country in the world.”
The armed forces rely heavily on those who are foreign-born. About 3 percent—or 530,000—of veterans are immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute. A disproportionate percentage—more than 20 percent—of medal of honor recipients are immigrants. More than one-third of immigrant veterans self-identify as Hispanic. Seventeen percent are from Mexico. Many immigrants who’ve served in the armed forces have gone on to become citizens. As of 2018, 83 percent of veteran immigrants were naturalized citizens, many of whom were still seeking citizenship when they served in the military.
Serving in the armed forces has traditionally made the path to citizenship easier for immigrants, with citizenship-related benefits serving as an incentive to apply to the military. This is no longer the case, according to Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney and former member of the U.S. Army Military Police Corps. Recent policy changes have filled the process with “headaches,” she says.
As of Feb. 2019, on average, the naturalization process takes 10 months, almost double the timeline from two years ago, according to the New York Times. However, the timeline varies greatly case-by-case, and Stock says that in her experience, veteran applications have taken up to five years.
Not all immigrant veterans are granted citizenship after serving. In fact, the denial rate of naturalization applications is higher for veterans than for civilians. From Oct. to Dec. 2018, 16.6 percent of veteran applications determined within the given period were denied, compared with 11.2 percent of civilian applications, according to USCIS statistics.
Stock says she believes the increased denial rates are an attempt to justify slow processing times for immigrant veterans.
Stock brings up a case of particular concern.
Xilong Zhu, a Chinese-born Army veteran in his late 20s, has faced problems with obtaining citizenship, according to Stock, who represents him. After graduating from Beloit College in 2013, Zhu wanted to enlist in the military in order to become a citizen of the United States. To maintain his visa status, he enrolled in the University of Northern New Jersey, an institution that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had approved to authorize “curricular practical training,” through which he could get school credit by working as a customer support technician at Apple rather than by attending classes, according to the New York Times.
After DHS certified his studies, Zhu paid the university $8,000. He used the student visa granted him to attend school, obtain a driver’s license and enlist in the military. He applied for citizenship through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which recruits immigrants with necessary language skills into the military. The program has since been suspended and his application has been delayed.
Zhu was one of many immigrants implicated in a DHS sting operation, at which point he was honorably discharged from the military. Prior to that point, he had served for seven months and completed basic training. Unbeknownst to Zhu and other students involved, the University of Northern New Jersey had been a fake university run by the DHS to pick up students committing visa fraud. The Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Secretary of DHS attested in a statement to a federal appeals court that they believe some of the students “in all likelihood, knew that their academic recruiters were committing visa fraud.”
After his honorable discharge, Zhu was detained by ICE for three weeks. He has since been released. As of June of this year, Zhu remains in deportation proceedings for alleged visa fraud, despite not having been convicted of a crime, according to the Washington Post.
“If you dig down and you lift up the rocks, you’ll see the people didn’t do anything wrong.” In Zhu’s case, Stock says, “the DHS committed the fraud…basically scamming people for money to attend their fake university. The people who attended the university were victims.”
Whether immigrants serve during peacetime or a time of conflict can impact their path to citizenship. Currently, the United States is considered to be in a time of conflict and has been since Sept. 11, 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Still, some veterans apply for citizenship using the peacetime law because it qualifies for any kind of service.
Noncitizens qualify for the citizenship-related benefits of serving in the armed forces after one year of service during peacetime, if discharged honorably. Until recently, immigrant veterans who served during a time of conflict could apply for citizenship as early as their first day of service. In 2016, the Department of Defense (DOD) instituted several policies which require extensive background checks for veterans and service members applying for citizenship, though they have already gone through background checks to join the armed forces, according to the Washington Post. Similarly, the DOD published an internal memo on Oct. 2017 stating that reserve members must wait a year before applying for citizenship in a time of conflict, and active duty service members must wait six months, which appears to conflict with the previous timeline.
“It’s kind of an obvious principle of constitutional law that you can’t violate a statute with an internal executive memo,” Stock says. There has been concern even within the government over the constitutionality of policies adopted by the DOD since 2016. In an April 12 letter to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco drew attention to possible violations of the Constitution under its guarantee of due process and guarantee against national-origin discrimination.
Allan Rimban, an army recruit in his early 30s from the Philippines, waited more than a year to pass the background checks necessary to join basic training for the military prior to applying for citizenship, according to the Washington Post. Rimban enlisted in Nov. 2015 through MAVNI. According to the Post, the Trump Administration announced that they would end the program, though increased background checks and wait times have essentially incapacitated the program since 2016, soon after Rimban applied.
When Rimban enlisted, he still had nine months left on his visa, but by the time he cleared the DOD background checks, his visa had expired. It was on these grounds that they rejected his application, though it had been valid at the time of his anticipated July 2016 ship date.
“In my case, I feel very wronged because in my adjudication – overstaying a visa isn’t even in the guidelines,” he said to Military Times.
Rimban received a rejection letter for his application in April, and filed an appeal the same day. As of August, he hadn’t heard anything more. He told the Military Times he’s thought of giving up and simply returning to the Philippines, but “I’ve been soldiering on. That’s what I expected an American soldier to do.”
Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell told Military Times she could not elaborate on whether Rimban’s case was handled properly.
“Since the beginning of the MAVNI pilot program, the DOD has advised participants that the…process can be long and complicated and that they should maintain their immigration status or seek an alternate status throughout the process,” Maxwell said.
The DOD has not been clear in promoting the recent changes, according to Stock, who recalls a recent time she visited a USCIS building with a client. In the lobby, a promotional video was being played on loop which stated that service members could attain citizenship at basic training. She remembers the military members in the room shaking their heads at the screen. They knew from personal experience this was no longer possible. Still, Stock says she doesn’t think the USCIS is intentionally misleading people.
“I think most of the recruiters in good faith somehow think—because somebody probably told them—that you can get your citizenship really fast when you join the military, and they don’t realize that the DOD changed the policy,” Stock says.