Immigrant Soldiers Sue to Become US Citizens, Saying DoD Broke Its Promise

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A soldier holds an American flag prior to the start of an oath of citizenship ceremony in the General George Patton Museum's Abrams Auditorium at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Sept. 19, 2018. (Photo by Eric Pilgrim)
A soldier holds an American flag prior to the start of an oath of citizenship ceremony in the General George Patton Museum's Abrams Auditorium at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Sept. 19, 2018. (Photo by Eric Pilgrim)

Six soldiers have filed a class-action lawsuit charging that the U.S. promise of citizenship for service -- dating back to the nation's founding -- has been broken by the Pentagon's restrictive policies on naturalization.

The six non-citizen troops, who all enlisted in the Army under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, alleged that new and lengthy security checks for possible terrorist ties and other measures have effectively blocked them from obtaining citizenship.

The suit, filed on their behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, charges that Defense Department policies enacted in 2017 "unlawfully obstructed the ability of thousands of service members to obtain U.S. citizenship, placing them in a state of personal and professional limbo."

Related: Recruits in 'Bureaucratic Limbo' with Citizenship Program Suspended

"I took an oath to protect this country, and I'm doing my best to live up to the values of the Army," said Pfc. Ange Samma, originally from Burkina Faso and one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

"It's been frustrating and heartbreaking not to obtain my citizenship as promised, but I will continue to honor my commitment," Samma, now serving with the 339th Quartermaster Company at Camp Humphreys in South Korea, said in a statement accompanying the suit.

Government lawyers signaled they would vigorously contest the suit, which was initially filed April 24 in federal court for the District of Columbia and names the DoD and Defense Secretary Mark Esper as defendants.

The government challenged requests by two of the MAVNI plaintiffs to remain anonymous, citing fears of retribution, and the court agreed. The suit was refiled April 27, naming all six plaintiffs, said Scarlet Kim, one of the ACLU lawyers.

She said the first motion in the suit was to get a court ruling on the ACLU's request for a preliminary injunction to halt the restrictions before the case proceeds, but a ruling on the request is not expected for months.

The suit alleges that DoD and Esper "have adopted an unlawful policy of withholding certifications of plaintiffs' honorable service, which they require to apply to naturalize based on their ongoing military service."

"As a result, defendants are denying thousands of men and women in uniform the U.S. citizenship that Congress has long promised to non-citizens serving in our military," the suit said.

From the Revolutionary War through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, "U.S. laws enacted during periods of armed conflict have permitted non-citizens to naturalize almost immediately upon entering service and prior to deployment," but the new rules have made that nearly impossible, the suit charges.

The basic requirement for a military application for naturalization has been the completion of the N-426 form for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) certifying honorable service.

Past practice was that the form could be completed almost immediately after reporting to basic training, but the DoD changed the rules in October 2017, the suit charges.

"The new criteria require service members to complete additional DoD background screening; pass a 'military service suitability determination,' which purports to determine a service member's security risk to the military; and serve for a minimum of 180 days for active duty service members and one year for service members in the Selected Reserve" before they can get N-426 certification, according to the suit.

"DoD's subversion of the statutory scheme is so significant that it is now harder for many service members to naturalize through the expedited process than through the ordinary civilian process," the suit charges.

However, the DoD said in a statement when the new rules were announced that, while the department "recognizes the value of expedited U.S. citizenship achieved through military service, it is in the national interest to ensure all current and prospective service members complete security and suitability screening prior to naturalization."

From 2008 to 2016, about 10,400 foreign nationals were recruited through the MAVNI program, which is designed to bring in non-citizens with language skills or health care and technology expertise needed by the military, according to the DoD.

Two previous lawsuits have been filed against the policy for MAVNI service members from the Selected Reserve, but the ACLU described the current suit as the first to represent all non-citizen service members.

In addition to Samma, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit include:

  • Pfc. Abner Bouomo, with the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
  • Pvt. 2nd Class Ahmad Isiaka, serving in the Selected Reserve with the 644th Transportation Company in Houston, Texas.
  • Pvt. 2nd Class Michael Perez, with 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
  • Pvt. 2nd Class Sumin Park, also serving with 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, at JBER.
  • Spc. Yu Min Lee, serving at Schofield Barracks.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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