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Why a huge drop in service members becoming citizens has lawmakers worried

Tens of thousands of troops have earned their citizenship through serving since 2010, but a precipitous drop in those numbers has some lawmakers concerned.

In a letter to the Government Accountability Office on Thursday, three senators called for a review of a handful of policies allowing a naturalization of non-citizen troops, after concerns about whether the Trump administration has directed the Defense and Homeland Security departments to tamp down on immigrants serving in the military.

“Both DoD and DHS have independently originated polices and initiatives affecting military naturalizations," Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Rouds, R-S.D., said in a release. “However, recent policy changes by DoD and DHS regarding military naturalizations may potentially impact the scope and effectiveness of these programs.”

The senators are asking for GAO to evaluate the standing programs, to assure that they are being effectively carried out in the way they were intended.

From 2010 to 2018, more than 76,000 non-citizens became citizens after serving in the military, according to the letter, but the yearly rate dropped sharply during that period from 11, 230 in 2010 to 4,135 in 2018.

The Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program was notoriously suspended in late 2016, sending hundreds of potential recruits into immigration limbo. Since 2008 the program had allowed green card holders ― and since 2014, some deferred action undocumented immigrants ― to enlist and earn their citizenship.

The following year, DoD changed eligibility standards for naturalization, and in early 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ended a program that would complete the naturalization process for recruits at three Army basic training posts.

During that time, the law has required DoD to inform non-citizen service members of the opportunities for naturalization, and to provide resources to take on the process. The most recent defense authorization act also requires that non-citizen service members have a chance to be counseled on the citizen process before the ends of their contracts, if they are preparing to be discharged.

“Additionally, USCIS is closing 13 of 20 international field offices that provide immigration services to service members and other individuals located overseas,” according to the letter, limiting naturalization ceremonies to quarterly events at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Yokosuka, Japan, Stuttgart, Germany, and Naples, Italy.

“However, we are still concerned that these closures may make naturalization more difficult for eligible service members abroad and contribute to an already declining rate of military naturalizations,” according to the letter. “The United States must help the brave men and women in uniform attain citizenship that they are willing to sacrifice for and defend.”

The move is one of several Duckworth has undertaken in recent months in response to Trump administration immigration policy. They included bills that would prevent the deportation of veterans for non-violent criminal convictions and assure access to “parole in place” for the undocumented family members of service members.

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