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Immigrants are Veterans Too

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Yalun Wang
October 23, 2017

The U.S. military is still the strongest military in the world. At the core of its success are more than its weapons and new technologies. The U.S. military also has some of the most dedicated people in the world, including its proudly serving immigrants and non-citizens. Acceptance of non-citizens in the military dates back to our Revolutionary War, with General Marquis de Lafayette among the most notable. This practice adds to the nation’s diversification and values. In the military, everyone is trained the same, no matter their color, race, religion or gender.


Many non-citizens want to serve in the U.S. military as a means to expedited citizenship. The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service provides more information on recognizing the significant sacrifice non-citizens make to the U.S. military on their official website. Not just any foreigner can join the military; they have to be residing permanently in the U.S. Additionally, non-citizens are limited to service in the enlisted ranks.

Military.com, a media company, reports there are about 35,000 non-citizens serving on active duty with an estimated 8,000 non-citizens joining the military every year. When viewed from the larger lens of non-citizens and immigrants, the Migration Policy Institute a research think tank, reports there was more than 65,000 immigrants serving in the armed forces in 2008. In 2016, the Migration Policy Institute reported there were about 511,000 foreign-born veterans of the U.S. military residing in America.

The experiences of the author describes what he gained as an immigrant in serving in the U.S. Army. He is on his way in seeking employment to further his service to the U.S. in the federal service.

A benefit of including other cultures in the military is that many Americans have never experienced living day-to-day with non-Americans. The opportunity of serving side-by-side with non-Americans facilitates a rich understanding of diversity on various levels for both Americans and immigrants. This is also true for many immigrant families that feel uncomfortable serving in the military. There are trust and acceptance issues, or a perception of not be included as Americans because of perceived biases against their race, culture or religion. By serving in the military, immigrants can be change agents which redefine the paradigm for being an American.

Immigrants that serve in the military can dispel myths about being bullied while serving in uniform. There is a disproportionate amount of immigrants serving in the military because of these cultural myths. Besides the belief that immigrants are treated unfairly, many immigrants believe in the myth they will be sent to the frontline first because they are expendable. This of course is not true. Immigrants that served are some of the best ambassadors for recruiting other immigrants. The value gained from this diversity brings to the military linguistic cultural capital, in addition to cultural intelligence abilities that can take decades for a non-native to master.

Serving in the military provides its service members, immigrants included, the chance to experience leadership opportunities they might not have had if they did not serve in the military. With promotion being based on performance, immigrants can advance through the ranks as quickly as any of their fellow service members. Exceptional performance by immigrants in the military is also rewarded with the same medals and awards as other service members.

The military invests significantly in training its service members in skills and abilities that are easily transferable to civilian careers after being discharged. Besides leadership skills, a person leaving the military after four years can come out as a sergeant (E5) with experience in planning, managing schedules and supplies, and fixing and maintaining complex technological equipment. There are also other skills that transfer directly to civilian life; for example, qualification in operating a Humvee, ULV, forklift and other Class A trucks are skills sought out in the civilian world. With three years of military vehicle driving experience, a service member can transfer these skills directly to obtaining a civilian Class A Commercial Drivers License.

Without a doubt, the shared experiences of serving in the military develop strong bonds that last for a lifetime. The mutual learning experiences also create many humorous stories involving the learning of language and culture in an environment that benefits all of the people involved. These stories make the immigrant experience a foundational part of being American.

The military benefits society too by providing training and education to its service members. Upon discharge, the former immigrant service member uses their training to add to a professional workforce. They can also pursue higher education, a goal many service members have, by using their GI Bill benefits. This adds to the diversity of the campuses they attend. It is also possible for the service member to earn a college degree while serving. Classes are offered on many military installations as a means to accommodate educating the service members. For many immigrants, military educational programs can serve as the first step in obtaining advanced degrees.

Military service also provides its service members the chance to build self-confidence and develop a sense of efficacy that is not afforded in many civilian jobs. For many immigrants, this can be a life-changing event.

There is little doubt that we need to remember all service members, immigrants included, are ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for America and its values. We also need to keep in our memory the immigrants who have given their all for a country they were not born in.

Author: Yalun Wang is a student in the Administration of Justice at Rio Hondo College and a U.S. Army veteran. Ygnacio Flores, EdD is a faculty member at Rio Hondo College

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