By Victoria Nauman, J.D. Class of 2023
Approximately three percent of veterans today are foreign born, a total of roughly 530,000 people of 18.6 million veterans nationwide.1 More than 148,000 members of the U.S. Military have naturalized since 2002, which includes 30,000 service members in the last five years.2 In 2021 alone, over 8,800 service members were naturalized.3
The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) permits the naturalization of those who serve in the military with an expedited path to citizenship, compared to the ordinary naturalization process.4 Specifically, any military member that has served honorably in a time of conflict for a period totaling one year can naturalize without any requirement of physical presence in the United States (as opposed to a 5-year physical presence requirement for most other applicants).5 While this expedited process was halted in a 2017 Trump-era policy,6 it resumed in 2020 when this policy was struck down in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.7 However, those who would like to naturalize as military members are still subject to the requirement that they must have “good moral character” within the five years preceding naturalization.
The good moral character requirement, which consistently makes an appearance in multiple immigration avenues, intends to ensure than an applicant’s character “measures up to the standards of average citizens of the community in which the applicant resides.”8 While good moral character bars include things that are more obvious, such as aggravated felonies, potential bars to good moral character can also include a laundry list of other activities. For example, bars to good moral character may include: a controlled substance violation, polygamy, gambling offenses, prostitution, habitual drunkenness, two or more convictions of a DUI, failure to pay child support, and adultery.9 Notably, this is a non-exhaustive list.
Having the five-year good moral character requirement apply to veteran immigrants attempting to naturalize, in practice, overlooks the current issues facing veterans today. In fact, “[o]ne of the growing concerns facing the U.S. Military is the increasing prevalence of mental health issues among all its members, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and suicide.”10 Many of these pertinent issues, or ancillary consequences of these issues, fall within the good moral character conditional bars above. Further, there is widespread criticism that the U.S. government is not doing enough to take care of their veterans and address these concerns.11 This critique illuminates the disconnect between the concerns that face veterans today, the inaction that is occurring to address these concerns, and the fact that these issues can potentially have adverse effects on naturalization down the line for those who are veterans.
Naturalization has many benefits, including the ability to vote and practice one’s civic duty, freedom of travel, the ability to work government jobs, and even provides more opportunities for family reunification than lawful permanent resident status provides. Perhaps most importantly, it also protects against deportation, for it is highly unlikely that once citizenship is granted that it may be revoked. If immigrant veterans choose not to naturalize or are prohibited from naturalization after failing to meet the good moral character requirement, this opens them up to the potential of being subject to deportation proceedings if they engage with the criminal legal system. Further, the cause for engaging with the criminal legal system may be attributed to the consequential effects of their service, and lack of care for veterans.12 This creates a cyclical issue, where immigrants can be granted status for their service in the military, and yet, that very service could also cause adverse impacts to the individual which later results in deportation.
While advocating for the elimination of the good moral character requirement or omitting its application to veteran immigrants attempting to naturalize is beyond the scope of this blog post, the adverse effects it has, and it disconnect between the reality veterans face when returning home from service, should be scrutinized.
 Deenesh Sohoni & Yosselin Turcios, Discarded Loyalty: The Deportation of Immigrant Veterans, 24 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1285, 1320 (2020).
 Deenesh Sohoni & Yosselin Turcios, Discarded Loyalty: The Deportation of Immigrant Veterans, 24 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1285, 1320–21 (2020).