Green-Card Soldiers: Should the U.S. military be reserved for Americans?

By Mark Krikorian on April 22, 2003

National Review Online, April 22, 2003

"Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventyfive;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year."

Massachusetts residents observed Patriot's Day on Monday, celebrating the start of the Revolution. This holiday marking the heroism of our citizen soldiers at Lexington Green and Concord Bridge might be a good time to assess the role of citizenship in our military.

Over the past month, the journalistic hive has cranked out a tidal wave of stories on immigrants in the military, orchestrated in part by the high-immigration advocacy groups. The objective was clear from a Wall Street Journal story earlier this month: "the prominence of immigrants such as Sgt. Gomez among the armed forces is helping to temper the emotional debate over immigration to the U.S. in the wake of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center." In other words, the media is lecturing America's ignorant masses that not all immigrants want to kill us.

Americans need no lectures on this - military service has long been a way for new immigrant groups to prove their worthiness - Irish Americans in the Civil War, southern and eastern Europeans in World War I, Japanese Americans in World War II. We are right to be proud of the recent performance of our immigrant soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in the Iraq war.

And, of course, service by naturalized Americans is not at issue, either. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt: "In the first place we should insist 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, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin."

But TR didn't stop there, and his next sentence is relevant to the matter before us: "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 taking the oath of citizenship, in which he declares "that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen...."

As most people didn't know until a month ago, the military welcomes enlistment of non-citizens; more than 37,000 lawful permanent residents (green-card holders) serve in the military, where they account for about three percent of active-duty personnel.

There are certain restrictions. You have to be a citizen to become an officer or join certain units, like the Navy SEALs. And, depending on the branch of the service, non-citizens may only be able to serve for one term (Air Force) or for a maximum of eight years (Army).

Such limitations implicitly acknowledge the fact that a member of a republic's armed forces ought to be a citizen of that republic. The naturalization law reinforces this notion by abbreviating the residency requirement from five years to three for non-citizens on active duty. And the president last year exercised his statutory authority by issuing an executive order waiving the residency requirement altogether for people on active duty in time of war.

These efforts to accelerate the citizenship process for "green-card soldiers" are commendable. Having delivered the keynote address at several swearing-in ceremonies for new citizens, I salute these servicemen and women who are joining the American people.

But the necessity of such measures comes from the fact that we allow non-citizens to enlist in the first place. No one appears to have asked whether this is a good idea. Shouldn't we require naturalization before enlistment? Don't we want an army of citizens rather than aliens?

This issue is often expressed as, "If they're willing to risk their lives for America, they should get citizenship." But, in fact, this seems backwards to me - newcomers should earn the right to serve in the armed forces by first formalizing their relationship with the United States. The oath taken by new recruits would seem to presuppose that one is already an American: "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..." Why would we expect a foreigner to "bear true faith and allegiance" to our Constitution, rather than his own?

Now, one might object that the numbers just aren't that big, so as a practical matter, it's not very important. It's true that non-citizens currently account for only about three percent of the armed forces, but their numbers have grown by about one-third just since 2000, much faster than the growth in the overall immigrant population. And in recent years immigrants have made up four to five percent of total new enlistees. Barring changes in immigration policy, this trend will only continue, as immigrants make up an ever-growing part of the youth population; in March 2002, children of immigrant mothers accounted for 18.3 percent of the school-age population, and 19.2 percent of those younger than school-age.

And with a little mischief from Congress or the White House, things could get really out of hand; The Los Angeles Times reports that illegal aliens are flocking to recruiting offices, figuring the president's waiver-of-residency requirements for non-citizens on active duty was just another element in the administration's campaign for an illegal-alien amnesty (the illegals have been disappointed - so far).

The U.S. embassy and its consulates in Mexico have also been besieged by young men wanting to join our armed forces as a way of immigrating. There have been so many inquiries that the embassy posted a notice at its website denying that illegal aliens or residents of Mexico can join the U.S. armed forces.

So what? you might ask. If foreigners want to prove themselves worthy of American citizenship by volunteering to risk their lives for America's defense, more power to them.

There are several problems. First of all, as the proportion of non-citizens in the armed forces grows, there is the real possibility that defending America will become "work Americans won't do." After all, it wasn't that long ago that hotel and construction workers were almost all American-born. Over the long term, budget pressures and high-recruitment targets will create strong incentives for the armed services to cut back on pay and benefits and hope that the enlistment shortfalls can be made up by non-citizens seeking the prospect of accelerated citizenship. This would save the Pentagon money but would serve to make military service increasingly unappealing to Americans, i.e., people who already have citizenship.

Not to put too fine a point on it, we should go to any length to avoid developing a kind of mercenary army, made up of foreigners loyal to their units and commanders but not to the Republic. It didn't work out well for the Romans.

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

Even the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System has barred non-citizens from filling "sensitive positions" - shouldn't the entire military be considered a "sensitive position"?

All young men living in the U.S. (even illegal aliens) are required to register for the draft, and if we again face a huge national emergency like WWII or the Civil War that requires the mobilization of millions of soldiers, then all will, and should, be inducted. But in the volunteer military we have now, where so many standards have been raised, there's no practical reason citizenship shouldn't be required of recruits - and every reason in principle that only those who have made a permanent commitment to America should be permitted to serve.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a Visiting Fellow at the Nixon Center.