Expedited citizenship would be an incentive
By Bryan Bender
Globe" -- - WASHINGTON -- The armed
forces, already struggling to meet recruiting goals, are
considering expanding the number of noncitizens in the
ranks -- including disputed proposals to open recruiting
stations overseas and putting more immigrants on a
faster track to US citizenship if they volunteer --
according to Pentagon officials.
Foreign citizens serving in the US military is a highly
charged issue, which could expose the Pentagon to
criticism that it is essentially using mercenaries to
defend the country. Other analysts voice concern that a
large contingent of noncitizens under arms could
jeopardize national security or reflect badly on
Americans' willingness to serve in uniform.
The idea of signing up foreigners who are seeking US
citizenship is gaining traction as a way to address a
critical need for the Pentagon, while fully absorbing
some of the roughly one million immigrants that enter
the United States legally each year.
The proposal to induct more noncitizens, which is still
largely on the drawing board, has to clear a number of
hurdles. So far, the Pentagon has been quiet about
specifics -- including who would be eligible to join,
where the recruiting stations would be, and what the
minimum standards might involve, including English
proficiency. In the meantime, the Pentagon and
immigration authorities have expanded a program that
accelerates citizenship for legal residents who
volunteer for the military.
And since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of imm igrants in
uniform who have become US citizens has increased from
750 in 2001 to almost 4,600 last year, according to
With severe manpower strains because of the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan -- and a mandate to expand the overall
size of the military -- the Pentagon is under pressure
to consider a variety of proposals involving foreign
recruits, according to a military affairs analyst.
"It works as a military idea and it works in the context
of American immigration," said Thomas Donnelly , a
military scholar at the conservative American Enterprise
Institute in Washington and a leading proponent of
recruiting more foreigners to serve in the military.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on, the
Pentagon has warned Congress and the White House that
the military is stretched "to the breaking point."
Both President Bush and Robert M. Gates, his new defense
secretary, have acknowledged that the total size of the
military must be expanded to help alleviate the strain
on ground troops, many of whom have been deployed
repeatedly in combat theaters.
Bush said last week that he has ordered Gates to come up
with a plan for the first significant increase in ground
forces since the end of the Cold War. Democrats who are
preparing to take control of Congress, meanwhile,
promise to make increasing the size of the military one
of their top legislative priorities in 2007.
"With today's demands placing such a high strain on our
service members, it becomes more crucial than ever that
we work to alleviate their burden," said Representative
Ike Skelton , a Missouri Democrat who is set to chair
the House Armed Services Committee, and who has been
calling for a larger Army for more than a decade.
But it would take years and billions of dollars to
recruit, train, and equip the 30,000 troops and 5,000
Marines the Pentagon says it needs. And military
recruiters, fighting the perception that signing up
means a ticket to Baghdad, have had to rely on financial
incentives and lower standards to meet their quotas.
That has led Pentagon officials to consider casting a
wider net for noncitizens who are already here, said
Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty , an Army spokesman.
Already, the Army and the Immigration and Customs
Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland
Security have "made it easier for green-card holders who
do enlist to get their citizenship," Hilferty said.
Other Army officials, who asked not to be identified,
said personnel officials are working with Congress and
other parts of the government to test the feasibility of
going beyond US borders to recruit soldiers and Marines.
Currently, Pentagon policy stipulates that only
immigrants legally residing in the United States are
eligible to enlist. There are currently about 30,000
noncitizens who serve in the US armed forces, making up
about 2 percent of the active-duty force, according to
statistics from the military and the Council on Foreign
Relations. About 100 noncitizens have died in Iraq and
A recent change in US law, however, gave the Pentagon
authority to bring immigrants to the United States if it
determines it is vital to national security. So far, the
Pentagon has not taken advantage of it, but the calls
are growing to take use the new authority.
Indeed, some top military thinkers believe the United
States should go as far as targeting foreigners in their
"It's a little dramatic," said Michael O'Hanlon , a
military specialist at the nonpartisan Brookings
Institution and another supporter of the proposal. "But
if you don't get some new idea how to do this, we will
not be able to achieve an increase" in the size of the
"We have already done the standard things to recruit new
soldiers, including using more recruiters and new
advertising campaigns," O'Hanlon added.
O'Hanlon and others noted that the country has relied
before on sizable numbers of noncitizens to serve in the
military -- in the Revolutionary War, for example,
German and French soldiers served alongside the
colonists, and locals were recruited into US ranks to
fight insurgents in the Philippines.
Other nations have recruited foreign citizens: In
France, the famed Foreign Legion relies on about 8,000
noncitizens; Nepalese soldiers called Gurkhas have
fought and died with British Army forces for two
centuries; and the Swiss Guard, which protects the
Vatican, consists of troops who hail from many nations.
"It is not without historical precedent," said Donnelly,
author of a recent book titled "The Army We Need," which
advocates for a larger military.
Still, to some military officials and civil rights
groups, relying on large number of foreigners to serve
in the military is offensive.
The Hispanic rights advocacy group National Council of
La Raza has said the plan sends the wrong message that
Americans themselves are not willing to sacrifice to
defend their country. Officials have also raised
concerns that immigrants would be disproportionately
sent to the front lines as "cannon fodder" in any
Some within the Army privately express concern that a
big push to recruit noncitizens would smack of "the
decline of the American empire," as one Army official
who asked not to be identified put it.
Officially, the military remains confident that it can
meet recruiting goals -- no matter how large the
military is increased -- without having to rely on
"The Army can grow to whatever size the nation wants us
to grow to," Hilferty said. "National defense is a
national challenge, not the Army's challenge."
He pointed out that just 15 years ago, during the Gulf
War, the Army had a total of about 730,000 active-duty
soldiers, amounting to about one American in 350 who
were serving in the active-duty Army.
"Today, with 300 million Americans and about 500,000
active-duty soldiers, only about one American in 600 is
an active-duty soldier," he said. "America did then, and
we do now, have an all-volunteer force, and I see no
reason why America couldn't increase the number of
But Max Boot, a national security specialist at the
Council on Foreign Relations, said that the number of
noncitizens the armed forces have now is relatively
small by historical standards.
"In the 19th century, when the foreign-born population
of the United States was much higher, so was the
percentage of foreigners serving in the military," Boot
wrote in 2005.
"During the Civil War, at least 20 percent of Union
soldiers were immigrants, and many of them had just
stepped off the boat before donning a blue uniform.
There were even entire units, like the 15th Wisconsin
Volunteer Infantry [the Scandinavian Regiment] and
General Louis Blenker's German Division, where English
was hardly spoken."
"The military would do well today to open its ranks not
only to legal immigrants but also to illegal ones and,
as important, to untold numbers of young men and women
who are not here now but would like to come," Boot
"No doubt many would be willing to serve for some set
period, in return for one of the world's most precious
commodities -- US citizenship. Some might deride those
who sign up as mercenaries, but these troops would have
significantly different motives than the usual soldier
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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