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Duckworth Leads Bipartisan Request for GAO Review of Military Naturalization Process | U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois

January 23, 2020

Rate of naturalizations for noncitizen servicemembers has decreased dramatically in recent years

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a combat Veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), today requested the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) review and address questions about the effectiveness of several military naturalization policies that affect noncitizens willing to serve the United States in uniform. U.S. Senators Mike Rounds (R-SD), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Dick Durbin (D-IL), Vice Chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, joined Duckworth in making this bipartisan request after the rate of naturalizations for noncitizen servicemembers decreased dramatically in recent years.

“Throughout U.S. history, noncitizens have served in the U.S. Armed Forces,” wrote the Senators. “From 2010 to 2018, over 76,000 noncitizen members of the U.S. military became naturalized U.S. citizens, with over 4,000 of those servicemembers naturalized abroad. However, the annual number of naturalizations for noncitizen servicemembers has decreased, from 11,230 in fiscal year 2010 to 4,135 in fiscal year 2018.”

“Both DOD and DHS have independently originated polices and initiatives affecting military naturalizations. However, recent policy changes by DOD and DHS regarding military naturalizations may potentially impact the scope and effectiveness of these programs,” the Senators continued. “While DOD and USCIS have made policies to help noncitizen servicemembers naturalize in the past, we urge GAO to evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives.”

Senator Duckworth re-introduced three bills last year to protect and support Veterans and servicemembers. Her proposals—the Veterans Visa and Protection Act, HOPE Act and I-VETS Act—would prohibit the deportation of Veterans who are not violent offenders, give legal permanent residents a path to citizenship through military service and strengthen VA healthcare services for Veterans. She also introduced legislation last November to protect military families from deportation and wrote to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) demanding a deported U.S. Marine Veteran be allowed to re-enter the country to attend his citizenship interview after he was denied entry at the border.

On Veterans Day, Duckworth traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, to meet with a group of Veterans who have been deported to hear about their efforts to access the VA healthcare benefits they’ve earned.

A full copy of the letter is available below and online here.

 

January 23, 2020

The Honorable Gene Dodaro

Comptroller General of the United States

U.S. Government Accountability Office

441 G Street, NW

Washington, DC 20548

 

Dear Mr. Dodaro:

We respectfully request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a review of military naturalization in light of the concerns outlined below. 

Throughout U.S. history, noncitizens have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. From 2010 to 2018, over 76,000 noncitizen members of the U.S. military became naturalized U.S. citizens, with over 4,000 of those servicemembers naturalized abroad. However, the annual number of naturalizations for noncitizen servicemembers has decreased, from 11,230 in fiscal year 2010 to 4,135 in fiscal year 2018. Within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is responsible for adjudicating naturalization applications from U.S. military servicemembers and Veterans seeking U.S. citizenship, while the Department of Defense (DOD) establishes policies governing noncitizens’ eligibility to join the military and assists noncitizen servicemembers who wish to naturalize.

After the United States began its military response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, Congress worked to expedite the process by which noncitizen servicemembers were granted U.S. citizenship through naturalization. Specifically, in June of 2008, the Kendell Frederick Citizenship Assistance Act (Kendell Frederick Act) was enacted to expedite military naturalizations. Among other things, the Kendell Frederick Act required DHS to use an individual’s fingerprints taken at the time of enlistment in the Armed Forces to satisfy background check requirements in connection with an application for naturalization. The law also directed agencies to ensure that military naturalization applications filed by those on active duty abroad are adjudicated within 180 days of receipt of responses to all background checks.

In addition, Congress through the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) established policies to ensure noncitizen servicemembers are provided information and counseling on the naturalization process. The 2018 NDAA included provisions requiring the Secretary of Defense to inform permanent resident servicemembers of the availability of, and process to pursue naturalization through military service. It also ensured that resources are available to assist qualified servicemembers in navigating the application and naturalization process. The 2020 NDAA requires the Secretary of Defense to modify the preseparation counseling checklist to include a specific block for servicemembers to indicate a desire to receive information on their immigration status and the expedited naturalization process. The military branch secretaries are also directed to provide counseling to noncitizen service members regarding how to apply for naturalizations.

Both DOD and DHS have independently originated polices and initiatives affecting military naturalizations. In 2008, USCIS opened the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative for enlistees at military installations including, Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Sill in Oklahoma and Fort Jackson in South Carolina. Graduates of basic training received the opportunity to naturalize through this initiative and request expedited processing of their application. Each military installation was equipped with designated personnel to help members prepare their naturalization documents.

However, recent policy changes by DOD and DHS regarding military naturalizations may potentially impact the scope and effectiveness of these programs. In October 2017, DOD issued a policy changing the eligibility for expedited military naturalizations. USCIS in response ended the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative in January 2018. Additionally, USCIS is closing 13 of 20 international field offices that provide immigration services to servicemembers and other individuals located overseas. In response to field office closures, USCIS will conduct quarterly naturalization services at four military installations– Camp Humphreys in South Korea, Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka in Japan, U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart in Germany and Naval Support Activity Naples in Italy. However, we are still concerned that these closures may make naturalization more difficult for eligible servicemembers abroad and contribute to an already declining rate of military naturalizations. The United States must help the brave men and women in uniform attain citizenship that they are willing to sacrifice for and defend.

While DOD and USCIS have made policies to help noncitizen servicemembers naturalize in the past, we urge GAO to evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives. GAO last completed work on the USCIS military naturalization process in July 2010. We request that GAO evaluate USCIS’s military naturalization process and address the following questions:

  1. To what extent has USCIS taken actions to address provisions of the Kendell Frederick Act since fiscal year 2010?
  1. To what extent have DOD and USCIS taken action to facilitate the processing of military naturalization applications, and what challenges, if any, has USCIS faced in processing these applications in a timely manner since fiscal year 2010?
  1. To what extent have DOD and USCIS assessed the effects of their efforts to facilitate military naturalizations?
  1. What Federal guidance exists in adjudicating naturalization applications from servicemembers and Veterans residing outside the United States?
  1. To what extent have DOD and USCIS implemented policies, guidance and programs that inform and assist servicemembers of the naturalization process since fiscal year 2010?  

Thank you for your help in addressing these issues. Please consider including recommendations for agency or congressional action in your evaluation. We would appreciate ongoing briefings as you conduct your work. 

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