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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 4, 2002

Foreigners in military eligible for citizenship

By Sandra Sobieraj
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Bush is offering a Fourth of July gift to 15,000 immigrants serving active duty in the U.S. military: immediate eligibility for citizenship.

The president was to announce his executive order, which he signed yesterday, during an Independence Day celebration honoring veterans in Ripley, W.Va.

"Our fine service men and women are fighting and winning the war on terror. They deserve the gratitude of all people who cherish freedom," Bush said in a formal holiday statement.

A White House paper outlining the change to immigration policy described it as a way to reward noncitizens serving on active duty in the military during the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism. Citizenship, in turn, will improve the retention of military people by allowing them to advance their careers in the armed forces, the White House said.

While legal permanent residency is all that is required to enlist in the U.S. military, only citizens can be promoted to commissioned or warrant officers, or serve in special warfare programs such as the Navy SEALs.

Current rules allow immigrants enlisted in the armed forces to apply for naturalization after three years of service, as opposed to nonmilitary immigrants who must bank five years of legal residency before becoming eligible.

More than 31,000 noncitizens are serving on active duty — accounting for between 3 percent and 4 percent of America's total military personnel — with a little more than half already eligible for citizenship consideration. The rest, an estimated 15,000 men and women, have not yet completed their three-year wait. It is this group that would benefit from Bush's executive order eliminating any waiting period.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service will work with the Defense Department to set up processing facilities on military bases. Military applications will not be given head-of-the-line priority over nonmilitary naturalization applicants, an administration official said.

President Carter signed a similar executive order following the Vietnam War; President Clinton did the same after the Persian Gulf War.