When America entered WWI in 1917, American men between the ages of 15 and 45 were required to register for the draft. This included not only U.S. citizens, but also resident aliens who had filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen.
This presented a problem since many had immigrated, in part, to escape the long military service required by many European nations, according to the National Park Service.
“Registrants for the draft who claimed exemption on the ground of being aliens,” said the Daily Dispatch Nov. 18, 1918, “and there were many in this country, will now have a long time in which to ponder the advisability of their claims. Such persons are forever barred from becoming citizens of the U.S.”
Aliens were divided into several classes in consideration under draft regulations. “Subjects of neutral countries who claimed exemption because of being aliens are barred now from citizenship,” said the Dispatch.
Subjects of a neutral country who had declared intention of becoming citizens of the U.S. were given the privilege of withdrawing such declaration. If they did, and claimed exemption because of being aliens, they were barred from citizenship.
A male immigrant who had not yet become an American citizen, a process that normally took at least five years, found he could be drafted into the armed forces of his homeland.
“Some immigrants even volunteered to serve in their native country’s military when war broke out,” said the National Park Service. “More than 500,000 German Americans and some 90,000 Italian Americans left the United States to enlist in the armies of their respective homelands.”
About 500,000 immigrants from 46 nations served in America’s armed forces during WWI, making up 18 percent of the troops. One reason for this is that military service had offered a “fast track” to citizenship since the time of the Civil War.
In 1918-1919, the United States waived the normal five-year U.S. residency requirement for servicemen, eliminated the need to file an advance declaration of intent, waived the application fee, and streamlined procedures so that soldiers and sailors could complete the naturalization process quickly in the field.
More than 192,000 WWI servicemen became citizens under these provisions.
“In some units,” said the Park Service, “three-quarters of the recruits entered military service not speaking English.” The Army learned to place draftees of the same ethnic group together for basic training, to help them learn English.
Today a non-citizen who wants to join the U.S. military must also have permission to work in the United States, possess an I-551 (Permanent Residence Card), have obtained a high school diploma and speak English.
Most recent data from the Department of Defense (DOD) showed that 24,000 non-citizens were on active duty in 2012, with 5,000 legal permanent residents (LPRs) enlisting into the U.S. military force each year.
From 2001-2015 there have been 109,321 non-citizen service members naturalized. Some military spouses have also been naturalized.
For those who serve during peacetime, non-citizens may qualify for naturalization if he or she has served honorably in the military for one year, have legal permanent residency, and file for naturalization while in service or within six months of service. For those who serve during wartime, non-citizens who meet requirements can file for naturalization immediately.
However, federal law requires that all military officers have U.S. citizenship. Enlisted non-citizens can only join the military as an enlisted member.
Federal law does not allow granting of security clearance to non-citizens. That also means non-citizens cannot become officers.
(Information for this column came from the National Park Service,“Immigrants in the military during WWI,” and Ellis Island Part of Statue of Liberty National Monument.)