Non-Citizens in Today’s Military Research Brief

Click here to read a related CNA study, Non-Citizens in the Enlisted U.S. Military.

By: Anita U. Hattiangadi, Aline O. Quester, Gary Lee, Diana S. Lien, and Ian MacLeod with David L. Reese and Robert Shuford

Executive Summary

The U.S. military offers many opportunities to a growing population of young immigrants, who could help fill current gaps and meet future needs. But despite a large pool of roughly 1.5 million potential non-citizen recruits, there are obstacles to their recruitment. The military services require that at least 90 percent of its recruits have a high school diploma, and many recent immigrants have not completed high school. Limited English proficiency among non-citizens can be another challenge.

Increased security concerns since September 11 may also restrict the military's ability to enlist non-citizens, undermining even the best efforts of recruiters. Policymakers have worked to enhance existing incentives, but there is still more they can do.

Despite these potential obstacles to their service, non-citizen service members offer a variety of benefits to the military:

  • Increasing Numbers of Potential Recruits

    Today's foreign-born U.S. population is the largest in history, accounting for 11.7 percent of the population in 2003 (up from 9.3 percent in 1995). Immigrants will fuel much of the growth in America's youth population. About a third of the world's population is currently under age 15, and the overwhelming majority lives in developing countries. Because many will have difficulty finding work in their native countries, large numbers of young adults emigrate—either alone or with families—with many choosing the United States as their destination. Of the 16 million foreign-born people who came to the United States between 1990 and 2002, almost a quarter were under age 21.


    Legal permanent residents of the United States have been eligible to enlist in the military since the Revolutionary War. Almost half of Army enlistees in the 1840s were immigrants, and between 1862 and 2000, more than 660,000 military veterans became citizens through naturalization. Today, about 35,000 noncitizens serve in the military and about 8,000 enlist every year.

  • Diversity of Recruitment Pool

    Legal permanent residents (LPRs), or green card holders, are more racially, ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse than citizen recruits. This is valuable on many levels, particularly at a time when the military is addressing the challenges of fighting terrorism.

  • Military Career Success

    Non-citizen service members have a long track record of military success. Non-citizens, once they have joined the military, are also far more likely to complete their enlistment obligations successfully than their U.S.-born counterparts. Thirty-six month attrition rates for non-citizens are between 9 and 20 percentage points lower than those for white citizens, the largest demographic group in the military.

    Just as non-citizen recruits offer distinct opportunities for the military, military service offers distinct opportunities for recruits, particularly in clearing the path to citizenship.

    Policy changes since September 11, 2001—including an executive order that allows non-citizens to apply for expedited citizenship after only one day of active duty and provisions in the 2004 defense authorization bill that ease the way to citizenship—may encourage noncitizens to consider military service.

    The military services and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) also have worked together to streamline the citizenship application process for service members, and the military has initiated several programs, including creating opportunities for translators, that may hold particular appeal for non-citizens.

    While the demand for non-citizen recruits is strong, the market is constrained because green card holders may not have high school diplomas or speak English sufficiently well to meet enlistment standards.

Recommendations for Improving Non-citizen Recruitment

Although policy changes have made applying for citizenship while serving in the military simpler, more convenient, and more attractive for non-recruits, more can be done.

To facilitate recruitment and retention of non-citizens in the military, the Department of Defense should:

  • Provide military recruiters with more information for non-citizen recruits by developing materials for applicants and new recruits that explain eligibility for expedited citizenship, the advantages of filing for citizenship while in the military, and the benefits of attaining citizenship.
  • Consider more structured, installation-based assistance that would help non-citizen service members and their dependents with the citizenship process.
  • Investigate, through the Office of the Secretary of Defense, whether more uniform treatment of noncitizens across the military services is needed.


Tapping the Pool of Non-citizen Recruits

In fiscal year 2004, the U.S. government spent about $2.7 billion to recruit 182,000 active-duty enlisted service members.

Most immigrants will not be U.S. citizens, but many will become legal permanent residents, which makes them eligible to enlist in the Armed Forces and which has created a pool of potential recruits that has expanded significantly over the years. For example, from 1973 to 2002, an estimated 21.5 million people obtained LPR status, with more than 1 million immigrants becoming LPRs in 2002 alone.

The chart below shows the population of "recruitable age" (18 to 24) by citizenship status. Although most of these people are citizens, about 4.1 percent are LPRs, which translates to roughly 1.5 million potential recruits.

18-24 Year Old Population Chart

Roughly 8,000 non-citizens enlist in the military every year. The Defense Manpower Data Center estimates that about 35,000 non-citizens currently serve in the active military, with an additional 12,000 serving in the Guard and Reserve.

The Navy has the largest number of non-citizens. In 2003, 15,880 non-citizens were Sailors, 6,440 were Marines, 5,596 were Army soldiers, and 3,056 were enlisted in the Air Force.

Although non-citizens constitute a relatively small share of new recruits and of America's overall military force, their proportion is expected to increase, in part because of the projected growth in the U.S. youth population over the next two decades as a result of immigration.

Additional factors that may increase the numbers of non-citizen recruits include the valuable linguistic and cultural diversity benefits that non-citizens bring to the services at a time when the United States is waging the war on terrorism, as well as interest in expedited citizenship opportunities available via military service to non-citizens.

In this environment, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the services should be cognizant of opportunities as well as challenges they may face in recruiting non-citizens, especially in areas where security concerns may limit certain job opportunities.

Recent Policy Changes as Inducements to Enlist

Non-citizens who become citizens reap such benefits from military service as the right to apply for security clearances and to receive substantial bonuses for language skills. Citizenship also opens the door to a broader array of jobs and opportunities within the military, and confers all basic rights of being an American, such as:

  • The right to vote
  • Automatic granting of citizenship to dependent children
  • Ability to sponsor family members living overseas
  • Special naturalization or LPR preference for a service member's immediate family
  • Free entry and exit from the United States
  • The right to hold public office (excluding the presidency).

In addition, since September 11, 2001, policymakers have implemented several changes that confer more benefits to non-citizen recruits, and that may encourage more non-citizens to consider military service:

  • An executive order, issued by President Bush in July 2002, allows non-citizens serving in the U.S. military to apply for expedited citizenship after only one day of active-duty service.
  • The 2004 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) reduced the peacetime waiting period for citizenship application, allowing applicants to be granted emergency leave and priority government transportation to complete citizenship processing. It also eliminates all application fees for non-citizen service members and allows for military citizenship applications to be finalized at U.S. consulates, embassies, and overseas U.S. military installations.
  • The military services and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) also have worked together to streamline the citizenship application process for service members. We find that many non-citizen service members apply for and obtain their citizenship while in the military.
  • Posthumous citizenship, granted to an alien or non-citizen national who dies as a result of injury or disease incurred on active duty, traditionally was an honorary status and did not convey any benefits under the Immigration and Nationality Act to any relative of the deceased. Provisions in the fiscal 2004 defense authorization law, however, now stipulate that the service member's immediate family—spouse, children, and parents—get special preference for immigration purposes. Immediate families of non-citizens are normally subject to long waiting periods and annual quota restrictions for immigration, but this special provision waives these quotas and expedites the process. Immediate family members who do not have LPR status may get it based on the deceased service member's newly granted citizenship. In short, the new provisions effectively place the immediate family on the same footing as those of naturalized U.S. citizens.

Policy Differences Among the Services

Military policy is generally uniform across the services, but in matters of recruitment, reenlistment, and use of non-citizen service members, the policies of each service branch differ.

It may be time for the Department of Defense (DoD) to explore whether more uniform treatment of non-citizens across the military services is needed. If, for example, the Air Force would like to grow a more diverse force, it may want to reexamine its re-enlistment restrictions.

A Reexamination of Restrictions

DoD manages non-citizen policy through an arm of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which coordinates with the USCIS office in Nebraska. Overall DoD policy for the services stems from this interagency coordination. Each branch of the military is tasked with providing a point of contact for service members applying for expedited citizenship, but no further direction is given to the services as to how to best provide assistance. The Navy and Marine Corps have delegated the duty to their JAG Officers and civilian lawyers, whereas the Air Force and Army have delegated the process to their personnel commands.

Navy - The Navy requires each naval command to appoint a representative for citizenship processing, and also requires that Sailors reporting to a new command be advised of the expedited process available to them. Non-citizen applicants are briefed on their eligibility for expedited citizenship by their recruiters. Basic policy is formulated in the Legal Assistance Policy Branch at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., and disseminated to all commands.

Marine Corps - The Marine Corps centrally manages the process of naturalizing non-citizens. Each major command has a Staff Judge Advocate and a citizenship coordinator to assist Marines with their applications, and legal assistance can track the status of applications. The Legal Administrative Manual provides guidance. In conjunction with the personnel division of the Marine Corps, the JAG Division at Marine Corps headquarters sends quarterly e-mails to non-citizens notifying them of their eligibility for the expedited process. Alien applicants are informed of the option during their pre-enlistment brief. The JAG division estimates that it processes about 900 applications annually and that most are approved within 6 months (down from a previous average of approvals taking 2 years).

Army - The Army handles naturalization of non-citizen Soldiers through military personnel offices at each command. Army JAGs do not typically get involved with the process, as they do in the Navy and Marine Corps. Recruiters advise and counsel non-citizen recruits on the expedited citizenship process available to them. The Army Public Affairs Office has distributed information on expedited citizenship to Spanish-language newspapers.

Air Force - The personnel branch of the Air Force is required to distribute a USCIS brochure on citizenship to all non-citizens, produce a quarterly listing of all non-citizens assigned to the base, report information to headquarters about those who have filed applications by quarter so that processing times can be tracked, and brief Airmen on Air Force rules and occupational restrictions relating to non-citizens and the naturalization process.

Differing Reenlistment Standards

The reenlistment standards for non-citizens also differ among the services. The Navy and Marine Corps have no statutory restrictions on the reenlistment of non-citizens, although the ability to obtain a security clearance may become a practical restriction beyond a certain point. The Army allows non-citizens to serve 8 years, either consecutive or not, which coincides with the 8-year universal military service obligation incurred by every military enlistee. The Air Force limits non-citizens to one enlistment term of either 4 or 6 years and requires them to get their citizenship to reenlist.

Top Ten Birth Countries of Enlisted Non-citizens

Occupational Obstacles for Non-citizen Recruits

The biggest practical limitation on non-citizens in the military is the ability to obtain a security clearance, which currently requires U.S. citizenship. Many military jobs require a clearance for entry and/or promotion.

The services have different needs in terms of billets and proportions of their force that require clearances. The Marine Corps and the Army have relatively fewer Military Occupational Specialties (MOSs) and a lower proportion of the force requiring security clearances, while the Air Force has a relatively higher number and proportion of billets requiring clearances. In fact, the Air Force estimates that only 40 career fields are open to non-citizens.

Even MOSs that do not require a security clearance may require one for particular billets. For example, Marines in the Infantry MOS do not need security clearances, but they may need them to be placed in a Security Guard billet.

Occupational Opportunities for Non-citizens with Varied Language Skills

The military is in greater need of personnel with varied language capabilities. Although the military can train recruits, language lessons are intensive and time-consuming. Language teachers estimate, for example, that it takes 2 to 3 years for an English speaker with no prior familiarity with Arabic to become fluent.

The services are exploring a number of language initiatives. The Army, for example, has developed a program to attract citizen and non-citizen speakers of a variety of languages, with the goal of producing soldiers who can work as translator's aides, a position that does not require a security clearance.

As part of the program, the Army has relaxed certain enlistment requirements, including age and English proficiency. Recruits who are not proficient in English undergo intensive English language training for up to 6 months.

Most of the program's enlistees are non-citizens; at the end of their training, they are offered assistance and an expedited application process if they wish to apply for citizenship.

Addressing Security Concerns

Although there is a clear demand in the military for those with foreign language ability, particularly those fluent in Middle Eastern languages, there are a number of concerns about accessing native speakers, including security concerns about recruits from countries that are considered hostile. Because of these concerns, the language initiatives are proceeding carefully.

The list below shows the number of speakers within the DoD population of languages that DoD has determined will be important in future years:

Top Ten Birth Countries of Enlisted Non-citizens

Non-citizen Military Success

How do immigrants do once they have enlisted in the armed forces? We gauge successful adaptation to military life by the completion of entry-level training (i.e., boot camp) and the first term of service, and we measure these attainments by the lack of attrition.

We first looked at 3-month and 36-month attrition in a simple cross-tabulation of the data. Three-month attrition rates were 5.9 percent for non-citizens and 10.9 percent for citizens.

36-Month Attrition Percentages

We then used regression analysis to estimate 36-month attrition for more than one million recruits who enlisted between fiscal years 1995 and 2000. The attrition rate for citizens was 32.2 percent, nearly twice the rate of attrition for non-citizens, which was 18.7 percent.

Black, Asian and Pacific Islander (API), and Hispanic non-citizens are predicted to have 3-month attrition rates that are 7 to 8 percentage points below those for white citizens, the largest demographic group in the military. All else being equal, other non-citizens who are white or not included in the above-cited groups are predicted to have 3-month attrition rates of 3.3 percent and 5.8 percentage points below those of white citizens. Only Native American non-citizens (a very small group of Canadian Native Americans) have higher attrition rates than white citizens.

In short, when the race/ethnic backgrounds of non-citizens are included in the non-citizen definitions, the marginal effect on attrition from non-citizen status increases. The majority of non-citizens are Hispanic or API; all else being equal, these two categories of non-citizens have 3-month attrition rates that are less than half the rate for white citizens.


Non-citizens are a vital part of the U.S. military, and have been since the Revolutionary War. Demographic trends and new incentives (including new language programs and expedited citizenship) make it likely that the number of non-citizens within the military's ranks will grow. Non-citizen recruits will provide the services with a more richly diverse force, not only racially and ethnically, but also in terms of language and culture.

We find that non-citizens do remarkably well in the military—both throughout boot camp and in the first term of service—and that the effects are strong and statistically significant. Many pursue citizenship while in the military, and this is positively correlated with retention. If the obstacles to recruitment can be overcome, non-citizens can provide the military with a rich pool of diverse recruits who have significant potential to succeed.

This Research Brief represents the best opinion of CNA at the time of issue.