The men who declared American independence 241 years ago today were largely landowners and merchants, already well established in society. Not so, however, for many of the soldiers who helped secure that independence over the course of the Revolutionary War.
From the nation’s very first days, some of its finest soldiers have been immigrants and, yes, even foreigners. As President Trump and his team celebrate their first Fourth of July in office—and as they continue shaping their immigration policies—they would do well to reflect on this tradition and its importance to the United States’ security.
In fact, America may never have won its independence if not for soldiers like Polish-born Casimir Pulaski, who brought the insights of a European cavalry officer to the Continental Army; or Prussian-born Friedrich von Steuben, who drilled General George Washington’s forces at Valley Forge; or even John Fitzgerald, who served as Washington’s aide-de-camp over that cold winter, having arrived in the colonies only seven years earlier from Ireland.
Millions of immigrant soldiers would follow in their footsteps. They include 100,000 U.S. troops who arrived in Europe a century ago to fight the First World War, immigrants who did not become citizens until their naturalization after a victorious return. And they include more than 100,000 men and women from this century who have earned their citizenship through military service since the September 11 attacks.
With U.S. troops now serving in more than 140 locations worldwide, the skills and experiences immigrants bring to the military have become all the more vital to national security. Today, soldiers are often asked to not only take and hold terrain, but also to bring together tribes and factions who share difficult ethnic and religious histories.
America’s quest to overcome its complex divisions remains incomplete. But where the country has succeeded it is often reflected in the ranks of the armed forces—in the men and women of many different beliefs, races, and backgrounds serving together to accomplish a common mission. Their ability to overcome the burdens of history is part of the power of America’s example and its promise to the world.
And yet, according to reporting by The Washington Post, the Trump administration is now considering breaking an Obama-era promise to military recruits who lack legal immigration status: that if they serve in uniform for the United States, they can become citizens in return. There are now 1,000 of these men and women, whose entry into the armed forces was being fast-tracked because of high demand for their linguistic and medical skills, and who now risk deportation.
In addition to potentially reneging on commitments to these recruits, the administration may enhance security screening for more than 4,000 other troops, the majority of whom are naturalized citizens. Part of the logic behind these changes is an argument that the previous administration was too lax in accepting immigrant recruits, though the Pentagon has raised flags concerning the prudence and lawfulness of subjecting a certain set of soldiers, many already citizens, to a more invasive security review.
For a military that has been at the vanguard of some of the nation’s most important transformations—desegregating more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act became law, and providing equal pay for men and women in the same roles more than 40 years ago—such measures would represent a dramatic step backward. They are not, however, completely unexpected given the record of this young presidency.
It was from the Pentagon during his first week in office that Trump made clear he intended to translate the caustic, anti-immigrant rhetoric he used on the campaign trail into U.S. policy. On January 27, on a stage at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, Trump signed his executive order blocking refugee admission and severely restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations.
Signing such a directive in a room honoring more than 3,500 Medal of Honor awardees, a full 20 percent of them born on foreign shores, was an odd choice. But as Trump considers how his immigration policies affect the nation’s security, and particularly the strength and readiness of the military, it would be wise for him to reflect on the names engraved on the Hall of Heroes walls, Americans who have earned the U.S. military’s highest honor. Some 700 of them were first-generation immigrants and hundreds more the children of immigrants.
One of them is the late Daniel Inouye, who because he was born to Japanese-immigrant parents in Hawaii was barred from joining the military until two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Inouye had intended to become a doctor, perhaps a surgeon, but interrupted his studies as soon as the ban on Japanese-Americans was lifted. He served his country as a soldier in Europe, where he would lose his right arm in a firefight with German soldiers. It was an act of service that would lead him into politics and to Washington, where he would become one of the longest-serving senators.
Or perhaps Trump might prefer a more recent story of courage and valor—that of Florent Groberg, born in France to an Algerian mother, who earned the Medal of Honor in 2015. As an Army captain on patrol in Afghanistan, Groberg ran in the direction of a terrorist about to detonate the explosives in his suicide vest. As Groberg pushed the attacker away from his teammates, the former collegiate runner at the University of Maryland suffered permanent injuries and saved the lives of several of his fellow soldiers.
Of course, the mission of the U.S. Army in which both Groberg and Inouye served is not to be the most representative portrait of the nation’s population, but to fight and win the nation’s wars. But as a growing body of academic research shows, teams composed of more diverse members are more effective than similarly qualified yet homogenous groups. It’s a lesson that’s been proven repeatedly by the success of men and women in the U.S. military over the last 241 years.
No, the military is not meant to be a refuge for political correctness or a laboratory for social experimentation, a criticism Trump leveled as a candidate. But allowing immigrants to serve in return for citizenship is not a social experiment. It is a tradition that has been vital to the success of the American experiment and to the security of all Americans, whether immigrants or native-born.