A U.S. Senator is blaming the Trump administration after U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services shut down offices at three Army bases earlier this year. Immigration officials, however, maintain the changes were based on Defense Department requirements, and say military service remains a viable option for gaining citizenship.
In a statement released today, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, an Army helicopter pilot severely disabled in Iraq, charged that the closure of the three USCIS offices on Army bases was the latest move by the Trump administration to cut off paths to citizenship.
"If you are able and willing to wear the uniform of this great nation, you should have the opportunity to become an American citizen," Duckworth said in the statement.
Duckworth noted she has introduced several bills aimed at preventing the deportation of service members and veterans, and giving them ample opportunity to go through the naturalization process for becoming citizens. Her proposed legislation would also guarantee legal permanent residents a path to citizenship through military service.
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In a statement explaining the closures, USCIS said that the agency "has decided to end the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative" at the three Army bases due to "changes in Department of Defense requirements for certifying honorable service for U.S. service members applying for naturalization."
The reference was to DoD guidelines announced last October requiring active duty recruits to serve for at least 180 consecutive days and complete additional background and security checks before they can be eligible to begin the naturalization process.
USCIS said that the agency "continues to support non-citizens who are serving, or who have served, in the U.S. armed forces and are eligible to apply for naturalization under special provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Honorable military service remains a strong and viable path to U.S. citizenship."
A spokesman for USCIS, R. Carter Langston, said that immigration offices remain open at the Army's Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; the Navy's Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois; Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; and Marine Corps Recruit Depots in Parris Island, South Carolina, and San Diego, California.
"We're doing what we need to do to make sure those serving honorably continue to have a viable path to citizenship," Langston said.
USCIS said that those who previously used the office at Fort Benning should now contact the field office in Montgomery, Alabama; those who used Fort Sill should now contact the field office in Oklahoma City; and those who used the Fort Jackson office should now contact the field office in Greer, South Carolina.
Duckworth, however, said closing the offices at Army bases "violates the commitment we have made to thousands of brave men and women who signed up to defend our country through the [Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest] program."
She said the closures made it "significantly harder" for non-U.S. citizen troops to access the opportunity.
The MAVNI program was begun in 2008 and was intended to recruit those who did not have legal resident status and who were health care professionals or had special language or other skills. More than 10,000 recruits have entered the military under the MAVNI program.
In addition, the Pentagon estimates that about 900 service members currently on active duty were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors but had legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
By executive order last year, President Donald Trump directed that DACA protections should expire on March 5, but the courts have thus far blocked any actions against the so-called "Dreamers" covered by DACA while Congress seeks to enact new legislation.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.