Immigrants and the U.S. Military: Fighting Side by Side Since 1776

November 11, 2013 Jamie Gilpin

This Veteran’s Day, we express our gratitude toward all of those who have served in the U.S. military, especially those who have sacrificed their lives on behalf of the country. Not everyone realizes that many of our nation’s veterans are U.S. immigrants, and they have played crucial roles in our nation’s military efforts since the Declaration of Independence. As we are a nation of immigrants, it should come as no surprise that immigrants and the U.S. military have depended on each other since this country was founded.

The American War of Independence

The tradition of immigrants in the U.S. military starts during the Revolutionary War. Several U.S. immigrants made a name for themselves fighting for the U.S. Continental Army against the British, including major-generals Lafayette of France, Casimir Pulaski of Poland, Johann de Kalb of Germany, and Baron von Steuben of Prussia. They are important fixtures in any American history book, and are still celebrated today for devoting their service to a country that was not originally their own.

The American Civil War

The American Civil War had its fair share of immigrant veterans as well. It is estimated that 25% of the Union Army were foreign-born, making immigrants a crucial part of its success.  In this case, the North benefitted from a huge influx of Irish and German immigrants to their cities in the mid-1800s.

World War II

As the United States continued to accept millions of (mostly young, male) immigrants from all over the world, they continued to enlist in the military at high rates for a variety of reasons: patriotism, financial stability, and an opportunity to assimilate more quickly into American culture. World War II marked the first time that a significant amount of non-European immigrants were enlisting: immigrants from Mexico and residents of the Philippines (which was then under U.S. control) were drafted and then granted citizenship as a reward for their service. Michael Strank, the officer who led the U.S. Marine squad that famously raised the flag on Iwo Jima, was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia.

Post 9/11: Immigrants join the War on Terror

The relationship between U.S. immigrants and the U.S. Armed Forces transformed once again after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President George W. Bush instituted a policy that put foreign-born service members on the fast track to U.S. citizenship. Visa opportunities were expanded to immigrants from the Middle East who served as much-needed translators.

Since 9/11, over 50,000 members of the military have taken advantage of these special wartime naturalization policies. Over 100 immigrants have been granted posthumous citizenship after losing their lives in battle, including Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who lost his life in a tank battle in Iraq.  Undocumented immigrants are not allowed to enlist in the U.S. military, but there have been exceptions with individuals who use false documents or obtain a green card through other means.

One of the goals of the DREAM Act and Obama’s Deferred Action program was to open up a path to the military for young undocumented immigrants. It not only strengthens the U.S. military, but also provides a path to success for immigrants who might not be able to afford university or cannot easily find a job.

Today about 8% of the U.S. military are foreign-born, mostly from Mexico and the Philippines. Around 8,000 non-citizens enlist in the U.S. military each year. As a country of immigrants who puts a high value on military service, we must recognize that a great deal of our country’s military success is because of immigrants. In order to continue that success, the U.S. needs to have immigrant-friendly enlistment policies that welcome immigrants of all kinds, especially those who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

The post Immigrants and the U.S. Military: Fighting Side by Side Since 1776 appeared first on Envoy.

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