Uncle Sam Still Wants You, Immigrants, Despite Army Cuts

The Army needs to fill quotas, and immigrants can gain citizenship in the process.

The Army may be cutting back its numbers. But that doesn't mean they're cutting back on recruitment—especially of immigrants.

On Tuesday, the Army announced its plans to cut 40,000 soldiers over the next two years, bringing down the total to 450,000. The cuts will primarily come from the front lines, or from opportunities to leave the service early or transfer to the reserves.

This may, however, give the wrong impression about the Army's need to fulfill recruiting quotas for entry-level positions, says Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer and former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. If the Army makes cuts, they still have to recruit at the front end.

"They have a pipeline going, and they have to keep the oil flowing through the pipeline, so to speak," she says. "If McDonald's announces cuts, it doesn't mean they stop hiring. They have to lay off managers or let more senior people retire early."

The Army is actually struggling to bring on qualified candidates. Just one out of five military-aged men is qualified for service anymore, Stock says.

This is where immigrants come in.

The military is the only large federal group that can hire noncitizens, and it's trying to make it easier for them to join. Following a 2006 statute that required recruits to have a green card, the number of immigrants in the service dropped dramatically. No one can get a green card anymore—at least, not until they're middle-aged. Now, at around 5 percent, the noncitizen level is the lowest in history.

"That's how people traditionally integrated into American society and earned their citizenship. It's how we won wars."—Margaret Stock, immigration lawyer, Former Lt. Col., U.S. Army Reserves

This year, the Army expanded a program that recruits immigrants with certain language and technical skills, aiming for 3,000 people this fiscal year, which ends on September 30. The Army plans to extend that level to 5,000 in the next fiscal year. This has allowed some "Dreamers," or undocumented youth covered by the DREAM Act, to join the military and gain a path toward citizenship.

Even with the announcement of cuts, the Army does not plan to curtail that program, says Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, an Army spokesman. He continues, "We don't anticipate any impact to specific programs right now, not with this round of cuts."

The military has a tradition of immigrants joining to gain citizenship. Nearly 20 percent of Union soldiers during the Civil War were immigrants, primarily from Ireland and Germany. Nearly 200,000 immigrants earned their citizenship by serving in World War I, as well. The tradition goes even further back, says Stock, who helped create the Army's immigrant recruitment program.

"Dating back to 1775, the percentages of immigrants in the military were huge," she says. "That's how people traditionally integrated into American society and earned their citizenship. It's how we won wars."