By Deborah Huso
When marine corps Lance Cpl. Andrews K. Nsenkyire was a boy
in Ghana, he never dreamed about coming to the U.S. “I had no way to come
here,” he said. “I had no family in the U.S.” Even when one of his teachers in
high school encouraged him to fill out an application for a national lottery to
obtain an immigration visa to the U.S., Nsenkyire still didn’t think much about
it and even forgot he’d filled out the application until his teacher called
him, four months after he’d graduated high school, and told him he was one of
Ghana’s 5,832 lottery applicants who had won the opportunity to apply for a
visa to the U.S.
Despite having taken only a few English classes in school
and never having had the opportunity to speak the language, Nsenkyire came to
the U.S. May 4, 2012, and almost immediately looked to enter the U.S. Army. But
the Marine Corps began to turn Nsenkyire’s head after his roommate told him,
“Join the Marines. They’re the best fighting force on the planet.”
Within months, Nsenkyire was in boot camp, polishing his
English language skills and applying for U.S. citizenship. After graduating
from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., he began as an
administrative specialist with the Installation Personnel Administration Center
at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. “Promotion, pay issues, awards —
everything goes through me,” says Nsenkyire. “I’m the liaison between the
command and the unit.”
While he was learning the ropes in the Marine Corps,
Nsenkyire also was working to become a U.S. citizen.
For decades, service in the armed forces has provided an
escalated path to citizenship for foreign nationals. Following 9/11, President
George W. Bush signed an executive order July 3, 2002, authorizing all
noncitizens who have served honorably in the nation’s military on or after
Sept. 11, 2001, to immediately apply for citizenship. According to U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), more than 89,000 members of the
armed forces have obtained citizenship since September 2002, with nearly 11,000
of them gaining citizenship while serving in foreign countries, including
Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait.
“When the nation is in a war period, if you’ve served one
day in the armed forces, you are eligible to apply,” says Daniel Cosgrove,
media relations, USCIS. He points out that since 2009, naturalization has been
offered simultaneously with boot camp in the Army and progressively in the
other branches, so foreign nationals leave basic training as full citizens.
“It serves a number of functions for the military
servicemember,” Cosgrove says. “They can serve their entire career as citizens,
and once they go to wherever they are after basic training, it can be harder to
get ahold of applicants.” Thus, completing the naturalization process
concurrently with basic training removes the obstacle of trying to help a
foreign national gain citizenship while serving in a combat situation in, for
Filling a need
While the benefits of serving in the armed forces to gain
access to citizenship are obvious to servicemembers like Nsenkyire, those
benefits serve both sides. The U.S. is in need of servicemembers, particularly
those with specialized skills, and foreign nationals often provide expertise
their American counterparts cannot.
A former member of a Special Forces unit who immigrated to
the U.S. from the Balkans — and who prefers to remain anonymous given his
ongoing work in military intelligence — says he strongly supports the U.S.
working to recruit foreign nationals and speed up their naturalization process.
“We are critically short of native linguists in Special Forces and military
intelligence,” he says. “To serve in Special Forces or Operations, you have to
speak two or more languages.” Fewer Americans can meet that requirement,
especially when it comes to having the ability to speak a foreign language with
the ease of a native. “When you have a native language ability, you more easily
overcome cross-cultural communication issues,” he adds, specifically pointing
to the Vietnam War as a turning point for bringing foreign nationals into the
armed forces and rewarding them with citizenship. “Although Vietnam was very
divisive,” he says, “the draft brought in an array of unique capabilities from
servicemembers who were foreign-born.”
Among them was Siad Mohammed, a native of Trinidad. Lynette
Mohammed says her late husband joined the U.S. Army specifically to become a
U.S. citizen. “He went to New York on a student visa,” she says, “but he wanted
to stay, and being in the Army was the easiest way to do that. Otherwise, he
would have needed a sponsor.”
Siad Mohammed was a military police officer with the U.S.
Army and served in Vietnam from 1970 through 1972 and then in the Army Reserve
for 17 more years.
The Mohammeds’ oldest daughter, Nisha Whitehead, says, “His
service transformed the lives of our entire family. As a result of his service,
Dad not only became a citizen but [also] brought Mom to the States as well as
his own parents and younger siblings.”
Nsenkyire hopes to follow a similar path. Now that he is a citizen,
he plans to work on bringing members of his own family to the States. “I think
what I did was the best and easiest way for someone to get his or her
citizenship,” he says. “My leaders always helped keep track of my paperwork and
made sure I had transportation to appointments with immigration services.”
Before he had the opportunity to come to the U.S., Nsenkyire
was uncertain about the course his life would take. Now he is making plans for
a 20-year career as a Marine and furthering his education. “It’s the best thing
that has happened in my life,” he says.
Easing Access to Citizenship: How It Works
The Immigration and Nationality Act has special provisions
that allow the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to expedite the
application and naturalization process for foreign nationals who are legal
residents and members of the U.S. armed forces or recently were honorably
discharged. Branches that qualify include the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air
Force, Coast Guard, some units of the National Guard, and Select Reserve of the
Ready Reserve. Spouses also might be eligible.
To qualify for citizenship, a servicemember must meet the
- good moral character;
- knowledge of the English language;
- knowledge of U.S. government and history; and
- making an Oath of Allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.
serving in the armed forces are exempt from some naturalization requirements,
such as residency in the U.S., and can apply while serving overseas. As of
2009, servicemembers in the Army can naturalize when they graduate from basic
training. The same rules since have been applied in the Marine Corps, Navy, and
Foreign nationals serving in the U.S. armed forces who
require assistance with naturalization processes can contact the U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services at (877) CIS-4MIL (247-4645) or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deborah Huso is a Virginia-based freelance writer. Her
last feature article for Military Officer was “Certified Adventure,”