Good enough to fight for the US but missing the mark for citizenship

by @joannaskao May 8, 2015 5:00AM ET

Military naturalization has gotten easier in recent years, but some service members still fall through the cracks

Sam Ward for Al Jazeera America

Kenyan native John Chombo was studying in the United States to become a nurse when he heard the U.S. Army was looking for people with health care or special language skills.

He was qualified on both counts. He was studying nursing and was fluent in Swahili. In 2013 he was accepted into the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, designed for legal noncitizens, such as foreign students and agricultural workers. Since MAVNI began in 2009, more than 4,000 people have enlisted through the program.

Chombo, who asked that his real name not be used, applied for U.S. citizenship during basic training, a requirement of MAVNI. He expected his application to go through without a hitch. He had already passed a stringent background check necessary for MAVNI, one akin to those needed for top-secret government clearance.

But his case wasn’t that simple.

Chombo is one of thousands of members of the military caught between two sets of standards: one for military enlistment, another for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. The difference means they find themselves unable to become citizens of a country for which they are willing to die.

The military never promises citizenship. While it is quick to disavow any promises, citizenship is often highlighted in recruitment. The majority of applicants from the military gain citizenship, but more than 7,200 were denied from 2003 to 2014, according to a spokesman for U.S. immigration services.

More than 7,200 naturalization applications from military service members have been denied since 2003

Fiscal Year Military approvals Military denials Civilian approvals Civilian denials
88,284 7,255 8,163,485 1,067,262
2003 4,659 431 451,404 91,168
2004 6,327 571 529,849 102,768
2005 6,106 189 594,260 108,058
2006 6,643 371 696,020 120,351
2007 4,541 375 654,692 89,308
2008 6,356 369 1,044,043 120,914
2009 8,850 913 733,132 108,919
2010 9,819 748 609,256 56,246
2011 9,415 729 681,290 56,336
2012 8,184 850 754,558 65,024
2013 8,414 823 769,002 82,289
2014 8,970 886 645,979 65,881
Show breakdown by year
Source: USCIS.
Note: Denial statistics do not include cases that were administratively closed.

Chombo’s story falls within an even smaller group, those denied citizenship because of “poor moral character.”

In 2011, while on vacation on the East Coast, Chombo met an American woman through a friend. A year later, the couple married. They lived in different states but communicated daily via phone calls and Skype sessions. But in 2012, when Chombo applied for permanent residency through his wife, immigration officials were dubious about the veracity of the union.

Although they never charged Chombo with marriage fraud or deported him, their accusations remained in his file and came to haunt him when he applied for citizenship through the military.

After filing under the Freedom of Information Act, Al Jazeera received data on more than 4,100 military applications for citizenship that were denied. More than a third were turned down because of moral character.

The accusation of poor moral character “is a bucket category that they throw a lot of things into,” said Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer specializing in military naturalization and Chombo’s lawyer. The reasons range from murder to having an extramarital affair.

Some of the 7,200 applications that were denied came from individuals who served in the military and then committed an offense that disqualified them for citizenship. But others, like Chombo, were qualified to enlist in the military and then were almost immediately denied citizenship. 

Failure to naturalize can be detrimental to both the individual and to the military. For the individual, the consequences include being ineligible for certain roles or promotions in the military (noncitizens may not become officers) and potentially deportation if charged with certain offenses. And for the military, individuals who are waiting for citizenship can in some cases delay deployment. 

Demonstration of loyalty

There are approximately 25,000 documented noncitizens currently serving in the military, with 5,000 joining each year, according to Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen. Service members may apply for naturalization after one day of service during periods of conflict (like the present) or after one year of service during peacetime.

Historically, serving in the military as an immigrant has been a way to demonstrate loyalty to the country. “This is not just the government putting pressure. This is immigrant groups wanting to do this to prove that they’ve come full circle,” said Michael Neiberg, a professor of history at the U.S. Army War College. “Immigrant groups want to demonstrate that they are part of the American experience. That being born in another country doesn’t exclude them.”

Immigrants have served in the military since the Revolutionary War, and the military has had a long history of supporting its foreign-born troops, according to Nancy Gentile Ford, a professor of history at Bloomsburg University who has written about immigrants in the military during World War I. “A government propaganda machine created a lot of hysteria and a lot of people turned on immigrants in American society. But the military went out of their way [to respect their culture].”

Immigrants have been granted special naturalization benefits since at least the Civil War, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The height of immigrants serving in the military was in World War I, when 20 percent of the military was foreign-born, according to Ford. Over 660,000 have naturalized from 1862 to 2000, and 102,000 have since September 2001.

Differences in the naturalization process for military service members and civilians

Category Military Civilians
Eligibility requirements During wartime, one day of qualifying service (e.g., basic training). During peacetime, one year of qualifying service. The person must serve honorably for a total of five years to retain citizenship. Continuous residence for at least five years (in some cases three years if married to a U.S. citizen)
Cost $0 $680
Average processing time A goal of the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative was for service members to obtain citizenship before the end of basic training (nine to 12 weeks, depending on branch of service). Many are able to gain citizenship in that period. Average processing time for all military naturalization applicants is about four months. The average processing time nationally is 5.5 months, although some regions are backlogged up to 10 months.
Source: USCIS

The benefits of joining the military — one being expedited citizenship — have gotten more attention since 9/11 because it is the first time the U.S. has fought in extended wars without the draft.

“In order to draw people to volunteer for the military, the military relies on the patriotism of the people who want to serve their country, but it also offers a whole host of benefits and incentives to people to join,” said Beth Bailey, a history professor at Temple University.

Since September 2001, a number of laws and programs have been introduced to relax the requirements and expedite the process, with varying levels of success, for service members wishing to become U.S. citizens. Through executive action, then-President George W. Bush in 2002 decreased the amount of service necessary to be eligible to apply for citizenship. And in 2008, President Barack Obama signed a bill to establish an FBI liaison in the DHS to expedite background checks required for naturalization.

The Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative, which began in 2009 and became fully implemented in 2013, made it easier for noncitizen recruits to apply for citizenship during basic training. There, they could get more support from dedicated naturalization coordinators and finish the process before being deployed. Since the program began, many applicants have gained citizenship before leaving basic training.

Despite the improvements in helping military service members naturalize, many are still falling through the cracks and being denied citizenship. Al Jazeera filed a FOIA request in November requesting documents showing reasons for denial and got a spreadsheet of causes of denial for 4,137 military service members. More than one-third of military naturalization denials (more than 1,500) were denied because of “poor moral character.” One-sixth (about 650) were denied because the applicant didn’t follow up with a request for more information, and another sixth were relieved of military service, didn’t meet special requirements or found out during the process that they were already citizens. 

Reasons for military naturalization denials

Reason for denial Number of military denials % of military denials Number of civilian denials % of civilian denials
Poor Moral Character (False Testimony, Lying)
Poor moral character ranges from being convicted for murder to having an extramarital affair.
1,502 36.3% 129,321 14.6%
Other 804 19.4% 62,106 7.0%
Lack of prosecution
The applicant did not follow up with a request for more information. Often, this is because they were transferred to a new duty station or got deployed and did not get the notice for more information.
651 15.7% 80,019 9.1%
Relieved from military service
The applicant was discharged from the military.
290 7.0% 228 0.0%
Unmet special requirements 253 6.1% 8,049 0.9%
Failure to establish alienage
Generally this occurs when an applicant is already a citizen and didn't know it beforehand.
130 3.1% 2,985 0.3%
Failure to Appear for an Interview 81 2.0% 38,800 4.4%
No Lawful Admission for Permanent Residency 80 1.9% 12,046 1.4%
Lack of knowledge 79 1.9% 142,245 16.1%
Outstanding finding of deportability 44 1.1% 4,727 0.5%
Insufficient Physical Presence 39 0.9% 18,276 2.1%
Filed too Early (Section 334(a)) 38 0.9% 5,280 0.6%
Lack of continuous residence 29 0.7% 40,863 4.6%
Withdrawal by applicant 28 0.7% 1,307 0.1%
Unable to read, Speak, or Write English 18 0.4% 311,039 35.2%
Unable to take Oath of Allegiance 17 0.4% 6,438 0.7%
Death 14 0.3% 1,685 0.2%
Finding of Fraud 14 0.3% 2,181 0.2%
Lack of attachment to the Constitution 13 0.3% 5,398 0.6%
Lack of jurisdiction 8 0.2% 5,290 0.6%
Lack of intent to reside in US 3 0.1% 2,031 0.2%
Section 313
Applicant was found to be opposed to government/law or favored totalitarian forms of government.
2 0.0% 476 0.1%
Incompetence 225 0.0%
Invalid signature (signature is not the applicants) 82 0.0%
N648 Fraud
The N-648 form indicates that an applicant would like to be exempt from the English and/or civics requirement because of a disability or mental impairment.
2,080 0.2%
Show more reasons
Source: USCIS FOIA request

Service members such as Chombo are left in limbo.

“The hardest cases I have are actually ones where people didn’t commit marriage fraud but [immigration officers are] accusing them of it,” Stock said. “They don’t prosecute anybody for it. They don’t try to deport anybody for it. They just make this false accusation that you must have committed marriage fraud, and then when you refuse to admit that you did something because you don’t think you did it, they deny your citizenship application.”

Chombo denies committing marriage fraud. He said that he and his wife lived apart for financial reasons and because he needed to stay in school to stay in the country and his wife didn’t want to uproot her three children. But he said that they communicated throughout the day and visited each other whenever they could afford to.

Applicants are allowed to appeal a denial decision, but many don’t go through the process because of a lack of knowledge about the process or money required to hire a lawyer. Stock, who founded the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s military assistance program, which connects active duty service members to volunteer immigration lawyers, has had three clients in the last six months who were originally denied citizenship for ostensibly having poor moral character. One just won her appeal earlier this week and will be able to naturalize.

Chombo is hoping for the same. He was scheduled to deploy last month, but because of his citizenship denial, his commander decided to keep him from deploying until his situation is resolved. In the meantime, he is at his duty station working as a nursing specialist, waiting to hear about the results of another application he and his lawyer filed in March.

“I’m serving this country,” Chombo said. For now, Chombo plans to continue his schooling and support his family in Kenya, while continuing to serve the country he calls home.

Correction: Chombo applied for permanent residency through his wife in 2012. Previously, the article stated that he applied for citizenship through his wife.