During the July 4 Op Sail ceremonies in New York Harbor, President Clinton was introduced by a recently naturalized Honduran who serves in the U.S. Navy. How do non-citizens join the U.S. armed forces, and how many have?
Permanent residents are required to register with the Selective Service System and could be drafted were the draft reinstated. They may enlist in any of the military branches if they meet the requirements (i.e., age, height, health, moral character). The Marine Corps and the Navy can enlist non-citizens who don’t have permanent-resident status, but they currently don’t as a matter of policy. An obscure law allows the Navy to enlist 400 Filipinos a year.
Last year 8,465 non-citizens enlisted in the U.S. armed forces (4.6 percent of total enlistments). Currently, 28,591 non-citizens are on active duty (2.5 percent of active duty forces).
The rules for re-enlistment of permanent residents vary from military branch to military branch. The Air Force allows non-citizens to enlist for one term only; they must become citizens to re-enlist. The Army allows non-citizens to re-enlist and serve for a total of eight years. The Marine Corps and the Navy permit non-citizens to re-enlist indefinitely. However, non-citizens are limited to military occupations that do not require security clearance because of the difficulty of conducting background checks on them.
There is a long history of non-citizens’ serving in the armed forces. Immigrants made up one quarter of the Union Army during the Civil War.
By enlisting in the armed forces, non-citizens can speed up the citizenship process. It usually takes five years for a permanent resident to become a citizen, but military personnel can become naturalized in only three years, or even less if they serve during wartime.