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Congress is considering legislation to protect veterans from deportation. – The Washington Post

After hiking for 45 days, Marine veteran Ramon Castro is reportedly nearing the end of a 2,000-mile trek along the U.S.-Mexico border to protest the deportation of noncitizen veterans. Over the past two decades, thousands of noncitizens enlisted in the U.S. military, providing critical contributions to operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Despite their service, the U.S. government deported perhaps thousands of these veterans from the nation they fought to defend.
It’s hard to know the exact numbers: in 2019, the Government Accountability Office found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) didn’t consistently keep records of the numbers of veterans it deported — and didn’t consistently follow special procedures it had established for veterans facing removal.
The modern U.S. military relies deeply on its foreign recruits — roughly 5,000 noncitizens enlist each year. Approximately 24,000 noncitizens are currently serving in uniform. Yet, as Castro’s march underscores, the fates of these noncitizens can be precarious.
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Non-Americans have long fought for this country
Noncitizens have played critical roles in every war that the United States has fought. Decades after the Marquis de Lafayette served as an aide to General George Washington during the American Revolution, tens of thousands of Canadians and Europeans joined the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. And hundreds of thousands of Black soldiers fought in the Civil War, their service all the more remarkable given that the U.S. government denied them citizenship.
As the United States grew more involved in global conflicts, more than a quarter-million noncitizens served in the U.S. military in World War I. During World War II, foreigners at home and abroad joined American units fighting to defeat Nazi Germany and its allies. Noncitizen draftees and volunteers alike joined U.S. war efforts in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf and Kosovo, contributing to an honorable tradition of military service that continues to the present.
The U.S. is far from an outlier in the degree to which it recruits noncitizens for its wars. As my research, recently published in International Security, shows, 90 other countries have embraced similar policies to use foreign recruits to defend the home front and to wage combat abroad. While democracies like Canada and India enlist foreigners, authoritarian regimes in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy also recruited foreigners for their militaries.
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Often, governments recruit noncitizens as a way to balance between the military’s need for personnel and the domestic contexts that make attracting sufficient citizen volunteers difficult. As modern militaries increasingly field sophisticated weapons systems, countries have also looked to noncitizens to bring much-needed technical skills into the ranks, as well as expertise in foreign languages and cultures in areas where the military operates.
Why the uptick in veterans facing expulsion?
Despite a long history of recruiting noncitizens, the U.S. government has been deporting foreign veterans with increasing frequency since the end of the Cold War. The U.S. war on drugs, coupled with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, led to a spike in deportations of veterans for drug offenses that, had they been citizens, would have been unlikely to lead to major legal trouble.
More recently, the deportation of noncitizen veterans increased under the Trump administration, which implemented a series of measures that increased barriers for foreign recruits to gain citizenship. These policies led to a striking shift: By 2019, immigrants in the military were being denied U.S. citizenship at higher rates than civilian peers.
Military recruitment efforts face a big challenge
The importance of foreign recruits to U.S. war efforts is all the more relevant given personnel challenges that loom large for the future of the U.S. military. Roughly 70 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 would be ineligible to enlist, unless they receive a waiver, due to factors such as health conditions and criminal records. As a result, and even accounting for an increase in volunteers following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a small minority of the U.S. population increasingly provides the bulk of citizen enlistments. While the population is sufficiently large in numerical terms to supply a robust all-volunteer force, a decreasing proportion of that citizenry is both eligible and opting to serve.
The picture for noncitizens is different in several ways. Foreigners don’t just enlist — they also tend to stay in the U.S. military far longer than their citizen peers. A 2011 report by the Center for Naval Analysis found that attrition rates of foreigners in U.S. uniform were “substantially lower” than that of citizen recruits. Noncitizen enlistees also tend to be more highly educated relative to their citizen peers.
The White House and Congress want reforms
In Washington, there is a growing bipartisan push to address the barriers that noncitizen servicemembers and veterans face. Before his election, presidential candidate Joe Biden vowed in 2019 to bring back veterans who had served honorably, yet were later deported. The departments of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security have also taken steps to prioritize the issue.
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In parallel, Congress is considering multiple pieces of legislation to protect noncitizen veterans from future deportation and allow veterans abroad to return to the U.S., while also streamlining procedures for future foreign recruits to obtain citizenship. Since 2002, more than 139,000 members of the U.S. military have become naturalized citizens.
Resolving the fate of noncitizen servicemembers matters for practical as well as reputational reasons. Repatriating deported veterans, as appropriate, back to the nation they fought to defend sends a powerful signal that the U.S. military’s vow to leave no man behind extends to all who wear the uniform. The issue also resonates in current discussions on the fate of noncitizens who aid the U.S. military, such as foreign interpreters in war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq.
The U.S. military has weathered two decades of war, with the organizational and personnel fatigue that go with this effort. Progress on the recent initiatives from the White House and Congress would help shape the U.S. ability to recruit foreigners in the future, and boost force stability and retention efforts.
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Elizabeth M.F. Grasmeder @DamnGras is a foreign-policy analyst in the U.S. government who is writing a book on countries that recruit foreigners for soldiers. The views expressed here are her own and not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

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