Green Card Soldier. The Cost of War: Displacement and Recruitment of Immigrants in the U.S. Military

Green Card Soldier. The Cost of War: Displacement and Recruitment of Immigrants in the U.S. Military

By JR Holguin

Immigrants and noncitizens have been lured into enlisting in the U.S. Military since its first wars, and as the U.S. faces a recruiting crisis, many, including veterans, warn those who plan on joining not to believe everything the recruiters promise. 

Immigrants seeking to gain citizenship are often under the assumption that joining the military can expedite the process and protect them from deportation. Still, Dr. Sofya Aptekar, Associate Professor of Urban Studies at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies and author of Green Card Soldier: Between Model Immigrant and Security Threat, says this is far from true. 

“Currently, there’s such a level of securitization and criminalization that people are just better off applying for citizenship as civilians,” said Aptekar. 

In her new book, Aptekar interviewed seventy-two immigrants who had enlisted in the U.S. military, including some who were deported after having completed time in the military, including decorated combat veterans.

Aptekar notes that the naturalization process through enlistment takes longer than that of a regular civilian. “What’s important to know is that there is a promise of a fast track to citizenship through the military for those who do not yet have the citizenship, but it’s actually now slower than becoming a citizen as a civilian.”

This uncertainty persists despite the Biden administration’s promise to “facilitate naturalization for eligible candidates born abroad and members of the military, in consultation with the Department of Defense.”    

Deported Veterans 

The exact number of deported veterans is unknown. USCIS, ICE, and the U.S. Border Customs and Border Protection have done a degrading job at keeping records of the amount of deported veterans and the reasons for the deportation. The number is believed to be in the thousands.  

Many deported veterans immigrated to the U.S. as children making it the only home they have ever known. When deported to these countries, they have no family, home, or knowledge of where they are sent to, and many do not speak the language.

These veterans suffer from physical injuries from their time in the service, emotional trauma that leads to PTSD, homelessness, hunger, and the threats of drug cartels.

A 2016 report by the ACLU of California, “Discharged, Then Discarded,” dives into the distressing experiences of deported veterans and the reasons why they were deported.

Veterans with minor offenses were deported after their violations were unjustly reclassified from minor to one harsh enough to be deported from the country they served. 

One sure way veterans are guaranteed a return ticket home is to be repatriated after death and given a military funeral.  

We Are Here Because You Are There

The United States military has created a cycle of recruiting immigrants that have fled their home countries due to conflicts involving the U.S.

“The United States and its military help create migration by disrupting communities across the globe,” said Aptekar. “The military recruits the same displaced people as troops touting their high quality and their language and cultural skills that are viewed by the military as combat multipliers.”

The 2021 report by Brown University, “The Cost of War,” was the first to track how many have been displaced by conflict. The report states it “conservatively estimates that at least 37 million people have fled their homes in the eight most violent wars the U.S. military has launched or participated in since 2001.” 

The report lists displacement in war-affected countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Iraq, and Syria. The Philippines accounts for two percent of the total displaced at 1,724,857, yet it makes for 22.8 percent of those immigrants and noncitizens enlisted in the U.S. military. 

As of April 2023, the U.S. plans to establish four military bases in the Philippine Islands as tension with China increases, specifically in the South China Sea. This could lead to more displacement.

Migrants and noncitizens make up about five percent of those enlisted across all branches of the armed forces, and many join for many reasons. Some of those are financial, the need to prove their loyalty to the U.S., a sense of belonging, and primarily the opportunity to gain a pathway toward citizenship. 

The most basic requirement to join a military branch is to have a U.S. permanent resident card or Green Card and speak, write, and read English. One can join most branches starting at the age of 17. Joining to enter the U.S. or obtain a visa is not an option. 

As the U.S. military faces a recruiting crisis, not only have they eased the requirement for citizens, but once again, the government turns to immigrants to help fill roles. 

“In this context of the pretty dire recruitment crisis especially, immigrants are considered to be higher quality,” said Aptekar. “They’re more likely to meet the qualification for enlistment and are less likely to drop out. And as I mentioned, they bring the skills that the military wants. They are frankly more exploitable.”


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