Obama speaks at troop naturalization ceremony. Can immigrants join US military?

The President welcomed 26 members of the armed forces after they took the naturalization oath. Service in the military can expedite the citizenship process.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Barack Obama greets service members after they became US citizens during a naturalization ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington July 4.

President Obama on July fourth presided over a naturalization ceremony for 25 US service members. Among those sworn in as US citizens were Byron Oswaldo Acevedo, a Marine Lance Corporal from Guatemala; Terence Njikang Ekabe, An Air Force medical technician born in Cameroon; and Faye Ubad Ngirchomlei, an Army military police specialist from Palau.

“Some of you came here as children, brought by parents who dreamed of giving you the opportunities that they never had,” said Obama in remarks to the assembled troops. “Others of you came as adults, finding your way through a new country and a new culture and a new language. All of you did something profound: You chose to serve.”

Obama used the occasion to touch briefly on his recent move to stop deporting children brought to the US who grow up in the country and serve in the military or attend college. He urged passage of legislation codifying his action, as well as comprehensive immigration reform.

“Because the lesson of these 235 years is clear – immigration makes America stronger,” he said.

Besides providing a forum for Obama to promote his immigration positions in general, the ceremony shed light on an aspect of the US military many in the country may not realize: you don’t have to be a citizen to join.

That’s not the case for all ranks – only citizens can be commissioned as military officers. Those considered citizens in this context include citizens of Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and a number of other US unincorporated territories.

But legal immigrants are eligible to enlist in the ranks, as long as they meet health, education, and other qualification requirements.

In addition, service in the US military entitles immigrants to an expedited citizenship process. According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, members of the armed services who have lawful permanent residence status, and have served honorably for at least one year, may qualify for naturalization.

However, anyone who obtains citizenship through the military who then leaves the armed forces under less-than-honorable circumstances prior to completing five years of honorable service may have their citizenship revoked, according to the USCIS.

From September, 2001, through fiscal year 2011, the US government naturalized as citizens 74,977 military personnel, according to government statistics. Last year alone over 10,000 were sworn in. From 1008 through 2011 1,236 military spouses were sworn in as citizens as well.

"You put on the uniform of a country that was not yet fully your own," said Obama on Wednesday. "In a time of war, some of you deployed into harm's way. You displayed the values that we celebrate every Fourth of July - duty, responsibility, and patriotism."

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