Guor Maker has led a remarkable life. He survived slavery and a brutal civil war in Sudan that claimed 28 members of his family, fled to a better life in America, graduated from college, and competed in two Olympics as a marathon runner. He even served as flag-bearer for South Sudan’s first-ever Olympic team in the Rio Games. Today, he wears the flag of his new country and serves it in an even more important role, as an airman in the United States Air Force. In an era where old debates over immigration are resurfacing, Maker’s only-in-America story is a reminder of how important immigrants are to this nation—and how much they sacrifice to serve and defend their new home.
Few Americans realize that 65,000 immigrants serve in the US military today. That number includes some 18,700 troops who hold green cards (in other words, legal permanent residents who are not yet naturalized citizens). According to the Pentagon, about 5,000 such residents enlist each year.
Since late 2001 when President George W. Bush implemented a new naturalization process for immigrant servicemembers, more than 109,300 US troops have been naturalized, according to the most up-to-date statistics from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). More than 11,000 of those military personnel became citizens during naturalization ceremonies in war zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq; in hot spots such as Jordan and Libya; in front-line posts such as Bahrain, Guantanamo Bay, Djibouti, Kenya, Korea, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
Immigrant military personnel are eligible for naturalization if they have “served honorably in the US Armed Forces for at least one year, obtained lawful permanent resident status and filed an application while still in the service or within six months of separation,” USCIS explains.
Military service as a pathway to citizenship is not a new phenomenon. If anything, America’s military was more immigrant-dependent in the past than it is today. For example, Congress authorized the creation of a German battalion in 1776. A study conducted by researchers at the Naval Postgraduate School points out that 47 percent of Army enlistees were immigrants in the 1840s. By the 1860s, immigrants represented 22 percent of the Union Army. By 1898, according to a study conducted by the Population Reference Bureau, fully 25 percent of the Army was foreign-born—at a time when just 15 percent of the US population was foreign-born. The study adds that after the Spanish-American War, Congress created a Puerto Rican battalion. And during World War I, “The commander of the 77th Infantry Division, manned by draftees from the New York area, claimed that 43 languages and dialects were used in his unit.” Between World War I and World War II, 80,000 military personnel were naturalized. During World War II, the American military featured Norwegian and Puerto Rican battalions. The Pentagon notes that special agreements with the Philippines enabled more than 35,000 Filipinos to enlist in the Navy between 1952 and 1991.
All told, some 660,000 US troops and veterans became US citizens between 1862 and 2000.
Immigrants serving in the military make enormous sacrifices for America—many of them even before they become Americans. For instance, more than 700 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients were immigrants—20 percent of that hallowed fraternity.
On the more mundane end of the spectrum, non-citizen recruits in the military have lower attrition rates than citizen recruits.
All that said, policies enacted in 2014 that allowed immigrants without proper documentation to join the military arguably went too far. Policymakers (and immigrants) should respect the law. If a person enters the United States illegally, after all, his first act in this country—indeed, the very method he chooses to enter this country—is to violate the laws of this country. That’s not unforgivable or unfixable. America is a land of second chances. But if the law means anything, if there is to be fairness for those who enter the country legally, any pathway to citizenship should include some sort of penalty—perhaps a fine—for entering illegally. Once that penalty is paid, those who want to become Americans should be given the opportunity to do so. To his credit, Defense Secretary James Mattis has made it clear that US military personnel who immigrated as children—dubbed “Dreamers” by some—“will not be subject to any kind of deportation…they are not in any kind of jeopardy.”
Doubtless, Mattis recognizes not only the many sacrifices and contributions these troops make for a country that is not yet their own, but also the many dividends derived from citizenship through military service. Perhaps the biggest is that those who become Americans in this manner have truly earned their citizenship and will never take it for granted. According to Emilio Gonzalez, former head of USCIS, immigrants who volunteer to serve in the Armed Forces are “more easily integrated into our nation, foster a greater attachment to our national and political institutions, and are transformed into committed and loyal Americans.”
As an Army veteran and naturalized citizen, Gonzalez knows that the worst thing we can do is divide our military—or our country—into shards of ethnicity, origin, and nationality. “The common bond that unites every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine is a commitment to duty, honor and country,” Gonzalez has observed. “Whether native-born, naturalized or not yet US citizens, service-members are unified not by common heritage, race, religion or creed, but rather by this universal code.”
His words call to mind something Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf said after the Gulf War: “When our blood was shed in the desert, it didn’t separate by race…it did not separate according to national origin.” In these days of deep divisions at home, immigrants serving around the world in the US military remind us of this truth.
These immigrants also remind us of how unique and special America is. “All of the things I’ve accomplished have derived from the opportunities the US has afforded me,” says Maker. “When I first came to America, I didn’t have hardly anything, but with the support and opportunity this country has given me, I’ve been able to completely change my life.”
Maker’s story is remarkable but not particularly unique. When the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson docked in Vietnam earlier this year, it carried Cmdr. Hien Trinh, who fled Vietnam with his family in 1975. They left by boat, first landing in Singapore. But Singapore “did not take refugees at the time and gave us provisions to head back out to sea,” Trinh recalls in a Voice of America interview. A US Navy ship then plucked Trinh and his family from the high seas. They ended up in Michigan, and Trinh joined the very Navy that once rescued him as a two-year-old war refugee.
“None of that would have been possible without the initial help from the Navy, and more importantly, the opportunities that the United States provides for her citizens,” Trinh concludes.
In 2014, US Army Gen. Viet Luong became the first Vietnamese-born general officer in the US military. As Military Times reports, Luong fled Vietnam in 1975 when he was 9. “My family made the escape the day before the fall of Saigon,” he recalls. From South Vietnam, Luong’s family was taken to the aircraft carrier USS Hancock, and then to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, before they made their home in Los Angeles.
To be sure, every nation has the right to determine who enters and who doesn’t enter its borders. That’s part of sovereignty. But as Christians and Americans—in that order—we should not lose sight of the reality that it’s far better to have people trying to get into your country than dying to get out. Inbound migration is a sign of a nation’s strength and vitality.
Millions have made their way here from other lands because, as President Ronald Reagan put it, “America is freedom.” When they arrived, these Americans-in-the-making found a nation where a refugee from Czechoslovakia could be entrusted to oversee US foreign policy as secretary of state, where an Afghan immigrant could represent US interests in Kabul and Baghdad and at the UN, where a Cuban or Taiwanese immigrant could serve in the president’s cabinet, where the son of a Turkish diplomat could grow up to run America’s most ubiquitous company, where a kid could start out as a Soviet refugee child, flee from the Red Army, survive the Nazis and World War II, and become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What a country—what an amazing country.
Photo Credit: Guor Maker—a former slave, two-time Olympian, and now a trainee at Air Force Basic Military Training—receives an “Airman’s Coin” at the Coin Ceremony on February 1, 2018, outside the Pfingston Reception Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. During the BMT Coin Ceremony Trainees are given “Airman’s Coins’ signifying the final transition from trainee to Airman. Photo by Airman 1st Class Dillon Parker, via US Air Force.