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Biden's Pentagon still enforcing Trump policy blocking citizenship path for troops, ACLU says

The Defense Department has “subjected service members to Kafkaesque ordeals that have further delayed their attempts to become U.S. citizens,” an ACLU lawyer said.
Image: U.S. Marines Continue Suppression Of Insurgents
U.S. Marines with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, RCT 2nd Battalion 8th Marines Echo Co. step off in the early morning during an operation to push out Taliban fighters in Herati, Afghanistan, on July 18, 2009.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking to force the Pentagon to abandon a Trump administration policy and reinstate an expedited path to citizenship for foreign-born members of the military, according to court papers filed late Tuesday.

The motion to enforce, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claims the military has defied a court decision that found the policy imposing minimum service requirements on new recruits to be unlawful.

“The Department of Defense is defying a federal court order to restore an expedited path to citizenship for U.S. military service members,” the ACLU said in a statement to NBC News Wednesday.

In 2017, the Trump administration created a policy that blocked an expedited path to citizenship for new service members, and instead required them to serve for six months to a year before they were eligible for the military certification required to apply to become naturalized citizens.

The ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of U.S. military service members in April 2020, claiming the policy violated the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which provides non-US citizens the right to naturalize quickly if they serve honorably in the U.S. military, waiving many of the other requirements for citizenship. In many cases, the INA allows for service members to become U.S. citizens before military deployment.

Four months later, the federal district court sided with the ACLU, ruling the military cannot impose those minimum service requirements before service members can seek citizenship based on their military service. The court also said the military must process paperwork within 30 days.

Trump’s Pentagon appealed the decision, but the court has not yet ruled on that appeal and now, one year later, the ACLU claims the military is still enforcing the policy and blocking expedited citizenship for new recruits.

“Over the past year, numerous class members at multiple U.S. Army installations consistently report that military officials continue to impose these unlawful requirements and obstruct service members from seeking U.S. citizenship in direct violation of the court’s order,” the ACLU said in a statement.

“The new court filing comes after ACLU negotiations with the Biden administration reached an impasse because the Department of Defense has failed to take actions necessary to fix the issues faced by service members.”

In June, the Pentagon under President Joe Biden released a memo stating its intention to rescind the Trump administration policy, pending a review.

But the ACLU says the military continues to enforce it, claiming that at four of the five Army basic training bases, soldiers are still told they need to complete the minimum service requirements before filing their naturalization paperwork. In the filing, the ACLU also argues service members have been waiting for months, defying the 30-day court requirement.

A spokesperson for the Department of Army said they do not comment on ongoing litigation.

A Pentagon spokesperson said the Department of Defense is complying with the court order.

“Since we are still in litigation on this issue, we are not able to comment further on this matter,” Maj. César Santiago said.

Santiago referred questions about how many people have used the expedited path to citizenship to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency’s website reports that since 2002 the U.S. has naturalized more than 139,000 members of the U.S. military, including more than 4,500 in fiscal year 2020.

USCIS reports that military naturalizations decreased after the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, which allowed the military to recruit certain non-citizens with specialized skills, was not renewed in September 2017.

Advocates for the expedited path to citizenship argue that service members without U.S. citizenship can be at risk when deploying abroad because they cannot travel with a U.S. passport, and that they can be excluded from professional advancement opportunities because many positions are only available to U.S. citizens.

The ACLU says that more than 100,000 individuals have used the expedited path to citizenship through military service since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Our clients are deeply dismayed that the Pentagon continues to block military service members’ path to citizenship in direct defiance of the court’s order and in violation of federal law,” Scarlet Kim, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, said in a statement.

“We’ve repeatedly presented the Pentagon with evidence of its non-compliance and proposed reasonable solutions, like identifying an official to assist service members whose chains of command refuse to help them obtain the military certification necessary for the citizenship process. Instead, the Pentagon has done virtually nothing and subjected service members to Kafkaesque ordeals that have further delayed their attempts to become U.S. citizens as Congress promised.”