Green-Card Soldiers Don't Pass Muster: Using Noncitizens for Our Defense Raises Security and Allegiance Issues

By Mark Krikorian on May 6, 2003

Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2003

During the Iraq war, much was made of the accomplishments of noncitizens in the military. To speed the granting of citizenship to these "green-card soldiers," President Bush waived the three-year residency requirement for naturalization. Sen. Barbara Boxer, Rep. Darrell Issa and others have introduced legislation to ease citizenship requirements for immigrants in the service or their families.

But no one seems to have stepped back and questioned the underlying policy: Is it a good idea to allow noncitizens to enlist?

There now are more than 37,000 lawful permanent residents - green-card holders - in the military, accounting for about 3% of active-duty personnel. (Illegal aliens are prohibited from enlisting - for now). They make up 4% to 5% of all new enlistees, and their numbers have grown by one-third since 2000.

Barring changes in immigration policy, this trend will only continue as immigrants make up an ever-growing share of young people. In March 2002, children of immigrant mothers accounted for 18.3% of the school-age population and 19.2% of those younger than school age.

There are two kinds of problems with the enlistment of noncitizens: principle and practical.

To begin with principle: The question here is one of membership in the nation. Theodore Roosevelt rightly said that "if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else." But Roosevelt's next sentence is also relevant: "But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American."

An immigrant becomes "in very fact an American" by becoming a citizen. The oath taken by new recruits would seem to presuppose that they are already Americans: "I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same." Until an immigrant fully becomes one of us, how can we expect him to "bear true faith and allegiance" to our Constitution, rather than his own? To use an analogy from a different arena, you can't serve on the altar until you join the church.

Then there are the practical problems: As the proportion of noncitizens in the armed forces grows, there is the real possibility that defending the United States will become "work Americans won't do."

Over the long term, budget pressures and high enlistment targets will create incentives for the armed services to continue to cut back on pay and benefits and to hope that shortfalls can be made up by noncitizens seeking accelerated citizenship. This would save the Pentagon money but make military service relatively less appealing to those Americans who already have citizenship.

This didn't happen during previous waves of immigration because there was little disparity between immigrants and the native-born in the other characteristics that affect enlistment rates - educational attainment, for instance. But now the disparities are huge.

This points to another practical problem. By limiting military service to those who have already become citizens, we might be less likely to face instances of desertion and treason, like the San Patricio Battalion, a group of Irish immigrants in our Army that defected to fight for the enemy in the Mexican War. Although Sgt. Asan Akbar, the Muslim convert who allegedly killed two of his comrades in a grenade attack in Kuwait, was not an immigrant, the Washington Times reported recently that U.S. officials feared more attacks from the 4,000-plus Muslims, many of them immigrants, in the armed forces.

There is a way out of this problem without changing the military's rules: reducing immigration. Though the principled argument is unrelated to numbers, it would become less salient if there were fewer noncitizens enlisting. And the practical problems with immigrant enlistment would shrink if the immigrant population were to shrink. Noncitizen enlistment and mass immigration just don't go together. One or the other needs to be ended.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.