Can Undocumented Immigrants Join the Military?

Immigrants have served in the United States Armed Forces since the country was founded, participating in every major conflict in American history. A study revealed that approximately 700,000 foreign-born veterans, many of whom have become American citizens, reside in the country today. Meanwhile, about 45,000 immigrants are actively serving in the Armed Forces.

Immigrants have contributed a lot to the nation, and becoming a legal resident is a big deal. But how about undocumented immigrants? Is it possible for them to join the military and gain immigration benefits? This article will discuss the legal status of foreign nationals who intend to serve the nation.

Immigration people

Requirements For Non-Citizens To Join The US Military

To join the military, non-citizens must satisfy the following requirements:

  • They must live permanently and legally in the United States
  • They must have permission to work in the United States
  • They must possess an I-551 or Permanent Residence Card
  • They must have obtained at least a high school diploma
  • They must be able to speak English

Are Undocumented Immigrants Allowed to Join the Armed Forces?

Undocumented immigrants are generally not allowed to serve in the military, but they might be permitted to join the military in times of great need. The US government considers a person a ‘resident’ even though they’re undocumented.

According to Selective Service or military draft, it would be ideal if a person interested in joining the Armed Forces registers within 30 days after their 18th birthday. Late registers are accepted in the United States Armed Forces, but there are age restrictions for enlisting.

The oldest age you can enlist for a branch also depends on the service branch. That’s why you must conduct due diligence before enlisting in the military.

Does joining the military ensure US citizenship?

US citizenship

There is no guarantee, but special provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) allow you to apply for lawful permanent residency in the country. Also known as the McCarran–Walter Act, the INA is the law that governs immigration to and citizenship in the United States. Anyone, including undocumented immigrants, who intend to get US citizenship should familiarize themselves with this immigration law.

A green card holder who serves in the Armed Forces may be qualified for accelerated naturalization, the process that helps a person gain American citizenship. In addition, foreign nationals who serve honorably in the country during wartime may be eligible for naturalization even if they’re not legally permitted to reside permanently in the US.

Understanding Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative (IMMVI)

In February 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14012. In July of the same year, the Secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Veterans Affairs (VA) announced the Immigrant Military Members and Veterans Initiative (IMMVI).

The IMMVI was formed to support the country’s non-citizen service members and their immediate family members. It directs the VA and DHS to identify and prioritize the return of current and former US military members and their immediate family members who were removed from the country. The initiative ensures these people receive the benefits they’re entitled to.

The IMMVI is a promising step for previously deported veterans to apply for humanitarian parole to reunite with their families, increasing their immigration benefits.

Interestingly, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill, is leading the charge for a new Senate bill to ease recruitment troubles in the armed forces. Under this Bill, residents with temporary protected status and those with an approved petition for an immigrant visa could serve in the military under the legislation as long as they meet the service branch’s qualifications.

In 2008, the Department of Defense began the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVI) initiative. This initiative aimed to expand recruitment to certain non-citizens with medical, foreign language, and other in-demand skills. However, this initiative was discontinued in 2017, and many immigrants and supporters have asked to revive the MAVNI program ever since.

Since this program was discontinued, nearly all the military service branches have seen a gap between their recruitment goals and enlistment numbers. The new Bill proposed by Sen. Duckworth would expand the pool of candidates and help the military fulfill their recruitment needs. This Bill would also give individuals an opportunity to become naturalized citizens.

Naturalization Requirements For Non-citizen Service Members

In general, non-citizen service members who wish to become naturalized US citizens must have the following:

  • Good moral character
  • Knowledge of the English language
  • Knowledge of US government and history
  • Attachment to the United States and allegiance to the US Constitution

Non-citizen service members may waive residency requirements necessary for naturalization. For those who serve during times of peace, non-citizens may qualify for naturalization as long as they’ve served in the US military honorably for at least a year, have legal permanent residence in the country, and file for naturalization while in service or within six months of service.

For people who served during wartime, non-citizens with all the general required paperwork and other requirements may file for naturalization immediately. The United States offers posthumous citizenship for non-citizens who were killed in combat. Over a hundred veterans were given posthumous citizenship after dying in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The citizenship process can take approximately 18 to 24 months.

Naturalization Policies in the United States

Serving in the United States Armed Forces allows immigrants to expedite their immigration process. This is why many immigrants are encouraged to enlist.

Federal law allows foreigners who serve on active duty or in any Reserve Component to naturalize and secure US citizenship after completing a year of service or immediately if serving during designated “periods of hostility.”

In 2017, the Trump administration restricted this expedition process by implementing mandatory waiting periods before the DoD may issue the necessary paperwork for immigrants’ honorable service, which is needed to process citizenship.

Enlistees were mandated to serve at least six months and complete more background and security checks before they were given the green light to begin the naturalization process. Some even had to apply for the process while being deployed abroad. This made it harder for them to secure the necessary paperwork, interviews, and fingerprints.

In 2020, a judge mandated that these prolonged waiting times were illegal. This vacated the policy and ordered the DoD to certify people’s service within 30 days of a request. However, many non-citizen service members were already affected by Trump’s policy by then.

Previously, programs such as the Basic Training Initiative, administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), provided onsite immigration resources and staff support so enlistees could begin the naturalization process as soon as they finished basic training. However, the USCIS abolished this initiative because of the mandatory waiting times.

In 2019, the USCIS shut down field offices abroad. From 23 offices, this was cut down to 4, making it more difficult for non-citizens and their families to become US citizens. These field offices were Camp Humphreys in South Korea, Commander Fleet Activities at Yokosuka, Japan, US Army Garrison Stuttgart in Germany, and Naval Support Activity Naples in Italy.

Barriers to naturalization have prevented service members and veterans from accessing critical benefits, including driver’s licenses and public services. The lack of access to benefits could lead people to violate the terms of the visas that allowed them to enlist in the US military, putting them at risk of deportation despite the honorable service they gave to the Armed Forces.

Reminder: Honorable Service Doesn’t Guarantee Naturalization

Despite the special provisions and privileges granted to service members, it should be noted that naturalization isn’t guaranteed for those who complete the naturalization process. While enlisting in the Armed Forces may increase your chances of being granted legal status as a citizen, there is no guarantee that you’d secure approval.

During the Trump administration, the USCIS revealed that one out of five military applications were denied in 2019, which is twice the rate for civilian applicants. However, this number improved the following year.

Research by the ACLU of California found that many applications were denied because these applicants weren’t found to have demonstrated ‘good moral character,’ a specific term in immigration law. Being convicted of an aggravated felony can permanently ban an immigrant from displaying ‘good moral character.’


people holding an American flag

While there is no guarantee for non-citizens to obtain citizenship through the military, it does provide an opportunity for interested foreigners to take a chance. Sign up for the SCRACVS to verify the active duty status of a service member today.


What are the top countries of birth for immigrant veterans?

The majority of the immigrant veterans who apply for naturalization in the US come from the Philippines, Jamaica, Nigeria, Mexico, and China. These nationals account for 38% of total naturalization since 2019. The following five countries are South Korea, Ghana, Haiti, Cameroon, and Vietnam.

Can a non-US citizen join the military?

It is possible for a non-US citizen to join the military. If you’re not a US citizen, you must have a US Permanent Resident Card (Green Card) and speak, read, and write English fluently. However, you cannot enlist in the military to enter the country or obtain a visa.

What is the maximum age to join the military?

Each military branch has its age limit for enlistment. You must be between 17 and 39 years old to join the Air Force, 17 and 35 years old to enlist in the Army, 17 and 31 to enlist in the Coast Guard, 17 and 28 years old to join the Marine Corps, 17 and 39 for the Navy, and 17 and 39 for the Space Force. The age limits differ if you wish to enlist as an officer or Reserve member.

Can I join the US military without a green card?

No, you must be a Green Card Holder or Lawful Permanent Resident to join the military. This is an essential requirement for people enlisting in the military, regardless of service branch.

Can an immigrant become a citizen by joining the military?

Yes, you can become a US citizen through the military. However, you must render service before the naturalization process can commence.

What is the Army program for immigrants?

MAVNI (Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest) program was created as a US military recruitment program for immigrants and non-immigrants. Unfortunately, this was discontinued in 2017.

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