Join the military, become a US citizen: Uncle Sam wants you and vous and tu

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Airman 1st Class D'elbrah Assamoi, from Cote D'Ivoire, signs her U.S. certificate of citizenship after the Basic Military Training Coin Ceremony at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, in San Antonio, April 26, 2023. The U.S. military has struggled to overcome recruiting shortfalls and as a way to address that problem, it's stepping up efforts to sign up immigrants, offering a fast track to American citizenship to those who join the armed services. The Army and the Air Force have bolstered their marketing to entice legal residents to enlist. (Vanessa R. Adame/U.S. Air Force via AP)

WASHINGTON – When Esmita Spudes Bidari was a young girl in Nepal, she dreamed of being in the military, but that wasn't a real option in her country.

Last week, she raised her right hand and took the oath to join the U.S. Army Reserves, thanks in part to a recruiter in Dallas who also is Nepalese and reached out to her through an online group.

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Bidari, who heads to basic training in August, is just the latest in a growing number of legal migrants enlisting in the U.S. military as it more aggressively seeks out immigrants, offering a fast track to citizenship to those who sign up.

Struggling to overcome recruiting shortfalls, the Army and the Air Force have bolstered their marketing to entice legal residents to enlist, putting out pamphlets, working social media and broadening their outreach, particularly in inner cities. One key element is the use of recruiters with similar backgrounds to these potential recruits.

“It is one thing to hear about the military from locals here, but it is something else when it's from your fellow brother, from the country you’re from,” said Bidari, who was contacted by Army Staff Sgt. Kalden Lama, the Dallas recruiter, on a Facebook group that helps Nepalese people in America connect with one another. “That brother was in the group and he was recruiting and he told me about the military.”

The military has had success in recruiting legal immigrants, particularly among those seeking a job, education benefits and training as well as a quick route to becoming an American citizen. But they also require additional security screening and more help filling out forms, particularly those who are less proficient in English.

Both the Army and the Air Force say they will not meet their recruiting goals this year, and the Navy also expects to fall short. Pulling more from the legal immigrant population may not provide large numbers, but any small boosts will help. The Marine Corps is the only service on pace to meet its goal.

The shortfalls have led to a wide range of new recruiting programs, ad campaigns and other incentives to help the services compete with often higher-paying, less risky jobs in the private sector. Defense leaders say young people are less familiar with the military, are drawn more to corporate jobs that provide similar education and other benefits, and want to avoid the risk of injury and death that service in defense of the United States could bring. In addition, they say that little more than 20% meet the physical, mental and character requirements to join.

“We have large populations of legal U.S. residents who are exceptionally patriotic, they’re exceptionally grateful for the opportunities that this country has provided,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, head of the service’s recruiting command.

The biggest challenges have been identifying geographic pockets of immigrant populations, finding ways to reach them and helping any of those interested navigate the complex military recruiting applications and procedures.

Last October, the Army reestablished a program for legal permanent residents to apply for accelerated naturalization once they get to basic training. Recruiters began to reach out on social media, using short videos in various languages to target the top 10 countries that recruits had come from during the previous year.

The Air Force effort began this year, and the first group of 14 graduated from basic training and were sworn in as new citizens in April. They included recruits from Cameroon, Jamaica, Kenya, the Philippines, Russia and South Africa. As of mid-May there were about 100 in basic training who had begun the citizenship process and about 40 who had completed it.

Thomas said the program required changes to Air Force policy, coordination with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and a careful screening process to ensure there are no security risks.

“We have to take exceptional measures to be able to thoroughly vet and go through the security clearance investigation,” he said, adding that in many cases the immigrants are not immediately put in jobs that require top secret clearance.

Under the new program, recruits are quickly enrolled in the citizenship system and when they start basic training, an expedited process kicks off, including all required paperwork and testing. By the time Air Force recruits finish their seven weeks of training, the process is complete and they are sworn in as American citizens.

The first group of 14 included several who are seeking various medical jobs, while another wants to be an air transportation specialist. Thomas said Airman 1st Class Natalia Laziuk, 31, emigrated from Russia nine years ago, has dreamed of being a U.S. citizen since she was 11, and learned about the military by watching American movies and television.

“Talking to this young airman, she essentially said, ‘I just wanted to be useful to my country,’” he said. “And that’s a story that we see played over and over and over again. I’ve talked to a number of these folks around the country. They’re hungry to serve."

For Bidari, who arrived in the U.S. in 2016 to attend college, the fast track to citizenship was important because it will make it easier for her to travel and bring her parents to the United States to visit. Speaking in a call from Chicago just a day after she was sworn in, she said she enlisted for six years and hopes that her future citizenship will help her become an officer.

In Chicago earlier this year, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth heard from a number of recruiters about the increased outreach to immigrant communities and how it helped them meet their numbers. In the 2022 budget year, they said, the Chicago recruiting battalion enlisted 70 legal permanent residents and already this year they have enlisted 62.

More broadly across the Army, close to 2,900 enlisted during the first half of this budget year, compared with about 2,200 during the same period the previous year. The largest numbers are from Jamaica, with 384, followed by Mexico, the Philippines and Haiti, but many are from Nepal, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

“As a little girl, looking at the soldiers, I always had admiration for them,” said Bidari, recalling British troops in Nepal. “Yesterday, when I was able to take that oath ... I don't think I have words to really explain how I was feeling. When they said, ‘Welcome future soldier,’ I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is happening.’”