Future U.S. Military Readiness Depends on Immigration Reform

Our broken immigration system undermines our military readiness and national security.

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Sergey Eliseev (R) of the US Army and originally from Russia, alongside other active duty US service members, after they became US citizens during a naturalization ceremony. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

On July 4, as we celebrated Independence Day, veterans joined active-duty military and military spouses and became citizens at a White House naturalization ceremony. These service members and veterans — dedicated immigrants — were willing to risk their lives for their country even before they could vote for a commander in chief. They are part of a long tradition of immigrants serving with honor in our Armed Forces.

Unfortunately, our nation's broken immigration system does not honor our history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. It also makes us less competitive and undermines our military readiness and national security. As a former senior non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, I recognize the system's unmistakable flaws.

Our country must do more to welcome immigrants. Since September 2002, the federal government has naturalized 89,095 members of the military and veterans, making these foreign-born, legal-permanent residents U.S. citizens. But we should expand that opportunity to other immigrants who are willing to serve.

Jim Gill (Courtesy photo)Here is why: The U.S. military is in a constant competition to attract and recruit top-notch young talent, but this is not an easy task. Fewer than 30 percent of youth in the United States would even qualify to serve in the military, according to the Defense Department. Many are disqualified due to criminal violations, lack of education, obesity, or other physical limitations. And, yes, thousands of eligible young applicants are barred from service due to their immigration status.

As the challenges the country asks the military to take on become more complex and the reach of our military becomes more global, our successes or failures will depend on our ability to recruit and retain the most talented and dedicated individuals this nation has to offer. The talent our military needs includes specific language and unique cultural skills, which only immigrants can offer. Special Operation Forces have a growing role in our defense portfolio. These units rely on individuals who can blend into native cultures and possess native language proficiency.

Our military needs access to the best recruits, immigrants as well as native-born citizens. We must create a process with enough capacity and scalability to meet that need. Among the possible solutions would be to broaden the opportunity for those who serve to earn their citizenship quickly, to allow young immigrants known as "Dreamers" to join these ranks, and to expand routes for people with key technical skills to come to the U.S. legally and to serve.

Dreamers stand out as especially deserving of a process that would allow them to serve and earn citizenship. These young immigrants were brought to this country by their families and grew up here. They attended school and graduated in the United States, which they have called home for the better part of their lives.

And this is nothing new. Our nation's military has always relied heavily on the contributions of immigrants.

Take the case of Sylvestre Herrera. Herrera fought valiantly in France as an infantryman in World War II. He earned the Medal of Honor for heroic actions after capturing eight Germans and attacking a machine gun-position through a minefield. He lost a leg but continued fighting to accomplish the mission. Herrera, born in Mexico, lived in the United States before the war but was not a citizen. He chose to serve, though he did not have to do so. Why? "My adopted country had been so nice to me," he said.

Would today's immigrants say the same? Can they honestly say the same?

I believe our country attracts some of the bravest servicemen and women in the world. I know that we also appeal to some of the brightest minds in the world. In order to continue to do so, I am convinced that we must stake out a plan to stay competitive.

Immigration reform must prioritize our border and internal security. But providing the opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs, scientists, and soldiers alike to earn American citizenship will facilitate the more accountable, vibrantly growing society that we need to prevail in an evolving and complex global economic and security environment.

Congress seems unlikely to act on reforming our broken system this year. That disappoints me and millions of Americans. We urgently need an immigration process that supports the needs of our military and our businesses alike. And we need the permanent solutions that only legislation can provide. 

Jim Gill of Jacksonville, Fla., is the president of TMG Government, a disabled-veteran-owned small business that specializes in military training analysis, learning and human capital planning, and professional consulting services focused on military and veterans issues. He served in the U.S. Army for 20 years.


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