Fewer foreigners serving in US military getting American citizenship
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Danielle Felone left her home in Jamaica four years ago to join her father in New York and become a permanent U.S. resident. While she hoped to pursue a degree in computer science like she was doing in Jamaica, she quickly realized college tuition in the United States was more than she could afford.
So she took the advice of her stepmother and in March joined the U.S. Navy, even though she was a foreign citizen. Felone was one of 15 military service members who became naturalized U.S. citizens Nov. 13 during a ceremony in Norfolk, home to one of the two immigration offices in Virginia.
"I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. The cause is always the same, protecting the people, regardless of where you are," said Felone, a seaman based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach who deployed aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman on Nov. 16. "I'm serving the country, so why not be a U.S. citizen? Why not be a part of the country that you are trying to serve?"
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services figures show the number of foreigners serving in the U.S. military who become Americans is sharply declining. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 7,709 became U.S. citizens, down from 9,239 the year before, a drop of about 17 percent. That's the lowest number since 2007, when 5,895 service members were naturalized.
In Norfolk, full-year statistics for the region were not available as of Nov. 13. But through the first three quarters of the 2015 fiscal year, the number of military naturalization applications approved was 391, a 35 percent decrease from the same period the year before. The Norfolk region includes Hampton Roads installations, as well as Fort Lee near Petersburg, Fort A.P. Hill near Bowling Green and Fort Pickett near Blackstone.
Immigration officials say they're not sure why there has been a drop-off. About 5,000 foreign citizens enlist in the U.S. military every year, and there are about 25,000 foreign citizens on active duty, in the reserves or in the National Guard, according to the Defense Department. In 2011, Mexico, the Philippines, Jamaica, Colombia and the Dominican Republic were the top countries of origin for foreign service members, according to the White House.
They've served in American units since the Revolutionary War. Today, those who are lawful permanent residents can join the U.S. military. The defense secretary can authorize exceptions for others if it is deemed vital to the national interest, such as if someone possesses unique language skills.
After 9/11, the path to citizenship was expedited for those serving in the military under an executive order signed by President George W. Bush. More than 109,000 foreign members of the military have become U.S. citizens since October 2001.
"Our workload seems to be pretty consistent, if not increasing," said Frank Reffel, the Norfolk immigration field office director. "There are certain categories of military personnel whose numbers are increasing, doubling and tripling. We haven't seen a drop. We don't have a drop correlating to 17 percent. That's probably because of our location. We have a pretty constant stream of candidates."
Indeed, while the number of military personnel in the Norfolk region who got citizenship dropped, the number of pending applications increased.
In the first three quarters of the 2015 fiscal year, there was an average of 245 pending applications , up from 218 during the same time the previous year.
The Norfolk field office is typically one of the five busiest in the country for military naturalizations, along with those in Chicago, Oklahoma City, Atlanta and Charleston, S.C.
Typically, the paperwork process for citizenship begins at basic training in another state and is transferred to Virginia when service members attend technical school or get their first assignments, Reffel said.
Pfc. Wynand Lehman joined the National Guard in Indiana in December but is training to be an aircraft electrician at Fort Eustis. Lehman is from Johannesburg and said it was easier to join the U.S. military than his home country's.
That was fine with him because, he said, he always wanted to be an American soldier.
"It's something I strived for ever since I was a little kid. I wanted to be a part of something bigger," said Lehman, who moved to the U.S. in 2011 after meeting his future wife in church a year earlier while on a travel visa. "So I decided that's what I want to do with my life, to fight for freedom for my country."
Lehman said he could've become a citizen through marriage or through military service. Typically, though, becoming a citizen through the military can cut in half the wait time for permanent residents seeking citizenship, Reffel said.
Seaman Linton Murray, who is from Jamaica, said he came to the U.S. in 2008 to play basketball at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Ky.
He said he started the process of becoming an American citizen in 2010, but it moved much faster after he joined the Navy about six months ago. Murray was married to an American and said it was important to gain citizenship so he could vote and have more opportunities.
He said he just got out of boot camp and is working in aviation maintenance at Norfolk Naval Station.
"It does feel weird to have this opportunity — to know that Jamaica was my home — but here is where I live now. This is the country that I serve and protect," Murray said.