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DoD Helps Noncitizen Service Members Become Full-Fledged Americans

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 16, 2003 – In a special ceremony on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation last August, 170 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines swore an oath of allegiance to the United States. The same month in Kandahar, Afghanistan, four dozen more service members did the same. All became American citizens.

Those are scenes that have been repeated throughout the services in the past year. Hundreds of non-U.S. citizen service personnel have taken advantage of Executive Order 329 and are becoming full-fledged Americans.

Signed by President Bush last July, the order expedites the citizenship process for those serving in the war on terrorism. Since then, the Defense Department has been following up on that executive order by assisting noncitizen members with everything from filing Immigration and Naturalization Service forms to following up on their applications. Bush's order affects an estimated 18,000 men and women in uniform, officials said.

Prior to the executive order, applicants had to have three years of qualifying military service. This was also a special exception -- civilian applicants have to wait five years.

According to Brad Loo, DoD deputy director, Office of Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management, a service member now needs only one day of honorable active-duty federal service on or since Sept. 11, 2001, to qualify for citizenship under the military-facilitated program.

To apply, noncitizen service members must file INS Form N-426, which verifies dates of military and honorable service; and INS Form G-325B, which requires biographical information, fingerprinting and a photograph.

Loo said that under a 2000 DoD-INS memorandum of understanding, the two agencies work together to assist noncitizen military members with their citizenship process.

That's good news, Navy personnel clerk Petty Officer 2nd Class Carlos Granthon will attest. A native of Peru, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen five years ago. The process was long, tedious work, he said, and he had to do it alone because no one aboard his ship knew how.

"The wait was the hard part, not knowing if they (INS) received your information at all, waiting for an answer, not knowing who or where to call. There was no communication," Granthon said. "If there is a better system, then this is good."

Loo feels that recent changes in the way the DoD and INS handle noncitizenship applications will be good for service members. DoD now provides the "necessary interface" between the services and the immigration service, he noted.

"Each service has established assistance centers and offices that have trained personnel assigned to help qualified service members with the citizenship application process," he said. "This will not only ensure a quality control check is done on the application, but also, it ensures the application gets sent to the INS facility designated to process military applications."

The INS has established a central office in Lincoln, Neb., to process military members' applications and dedicated a point of contact to discuss issues regarding specific applications with a single representative from each of the services.

Chris Rydelek, head of the legal assistance branch at Marine Corps Headquarters here, calls the assistance "extremely successful." The DoD-INS partnership has cut application processing time from two years down to about six months, he estimated.

"I would say this represents a substantial improvement, a fresh approach," Rydelek said. "In the past it was a disjointed process at best." He said applications were often incomplete and were sent back and forth between various government offices.

"Now DoD provides the oversight to ensure the INS gets a complete application along with all the proper documentation needed and all of this information is sent to a central location," he said.

Loo said the president's action and Defense Department's initiative not only serve noncitizen service members, but also recognize their contributions to the military and the nation.

"Noncitizen soldiers, especially during a time of conflict or war, have demonstrated a willingness to defend this country, with their lives if need be," Loo explained. "Congress by law and the president by his executive order have recognized that these people have earned a special consideration of their requests for citizenship."

He also noted that service members who fail to renew their permanent resident alien card, or who lose permanent resident status for some reason, will not be punished under INS rules. "The president's executive order forgives this error," Loo said.

He said DoD benefits from noncitizen service members because many speak a native language other than English and constitute a source of linguists who will not require extensive language training.

"The sooner they become citizens, the sooner the military can use these linguists, particularly in specialties requiring a security clearance, if they are otherwise qualified for a clearance, " he said.

The Defense Department has no formal measure of the program's success, but the number of applications has increased, and this is a clear indication that the word has gotten out," Loo said.

He said the services have Web sites that detail the citizenship application process. For more information and guidance, visit the following sites:

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