A federal judge in Washington, D.C. has struck down a Defense Department policy that requires noncitizens to serve on active duty for at least six months before they can apply for U.S. citizenship.
In a swift response to a lawsuit filed in April by seven permanent residents and one Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiary serving in the U.S. military, U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle ruled that by law, DoD must provide service members who request the needed citizenship certification the paperwork if they have "satisfied one day of qualifying service."
The minimum service requirements, which also mandate that Reserve members serve at least a year before they can receive the certification, "are contrary to law," Huvelle said, in an opinion released Monday.
Army Pfc. Ange Samma, a Green Card holder originally from Burkina Faso who currently serves in South Korea, filed the suit April 24 along with several other U.S. troops who enlisted under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, program.
Their suit charged that security checks and other measures, instituted in late 2017 to guard against infiltration by foreign nationals with ties to terrorism, have blocked their paths to citizenship and negatively affected their careers, causing delays in obtaining security clearances and other requirements needed for their jobs.
The suit alleged that DoD and Esper "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.
To begin the naturalization process, service members must receive a certification of honorable service from the Defense Department, a document called an N-426. They then can apply for citizenship with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services 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.
Two previous lawsuits have been filed against the policy for MAVNI service members from the Selected Reserve. But the current suit applies to all non-citizen service members, including active-duty personnel and Reserve members. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the plaintiffs in the case, the outcome may affect thousands.
"Congress has long recognized that immigrants who serve in the military during wartime are entitled to be Americans ... We're pleased that our clients and thousands of others like them can finally benefit from the expedited path to citizenship they have rightfully earned through their honorable military service," said Scarlet Kim, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project, in a prepared statement.
DoD officials have maintained that the department "recognizes the value of expedited U.S. citizenship achieved through military service."
But, it is "in the national interest to ensure all current and prospective service members complete security and suitability screening prior to naturalization,” officials said in a statement released when the new policy was implemented.
From 2008 to 2016, about 10,400 foreign nationals were recruited through the MAVNI program, which is designed to bring in noncitizens with language skills or health care and technology expertise needed by the military, according to the DoD.
There was a 72% decrease in applicants after the new policy was instituted, according to the ACLU.
DoD did not appeal rulings in the previous MAVNI cases, but the large potential impact of Huvelle’s decision may influence its legal strategy.
The Defense Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
ACLU officials said the policy, along with others instituted by President Donald Trump, denies noncitizen U.S. troops the rights and privileges that accompany citizenship, such as the right to vote, sponsor noncitizen family members and travel.
"This decision rejects the Trump administration's racist attempt to subvert this clear congressional mandate in furtherance of its anti-immigrant agenda," Kim said.