The use of the military by enlistees as a tool for gaining citizenship and civil rights raises some interesting ethical questions. In the United States, people who serve in the military while living in the US on a Green Card can be eligible for fast-tracked citizenship, originally either after serving one year in peacetime, or immediately when serving in combat. A programme was initiated in 2009 to allow enlisted soldiers to naturalise after completing basic training. In 2012, 7257 service men and women became US citizens.
Guadalupe Denogean’s episode of the ‘I am an American’ video series, on gaining his citizenship through military service.
The United States has a long history of allowing naturalisation through military service and it has been a powerful tool especially by African, Irish and Asian Americans to challenge societal prejudices and gain recognition within society:
Central to military naturalization is a powerful symbolic message: those willing to fight and die for the United States are worthy of its citizenship. For immigrants historically considered “racially distinct,” military naturalization afforded an opportunity to challenge preexisting conceptions of citizenship that equated color with country.
The practice has strong ties to the concept of the citizen-soldier, a figure who fights for their country as a part of their duty as a citizen of that country. Offering legal citizenship to those who fight is seen, in this sense, as a kind of natural justice. There is also evidence to suggest that minority groups who are able to serve in the military, in societies which value military service, gain an important tool in their struggles for greater rights and recognition.
An RT News segment discusses some of the issues with military naturalisation
In contrast to the many positive aspects of military naturalisation, the tradition of allowing US residents who serve to become legal citizens exists alongside a long history of promoting a racialised concept of citizenship, showing that only ‘certain kinds of foreigners’ have historically had guaranteed access to it. It also seems problematic that those in society who may already be seen as less grieveable because of their race, ethnicity or nationality, are prompted to join the military as a way of gaining recognition, allowing more privileged members of society to more easily avoid military service. Migrants, especially undocumented ones, already experience higher levels of ‘precarity’ than documented residents and citizens, so it may be that it is easier to send them to fight (and die) in war.
Sexism and homophobia in the military may also act as limitations on who gets to be eligible for naturalisation through military service, though hopefully the repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy from Uniform Code and the recent decision to allow women to hold frontline combat positions will help to begin lessening this risk. Citizenship gained through military service can also be revoked for ‘bad behaviour’ under some circumstances, a rule which most certainly does not apply to soldiers who were born in the US.
Various measures aimed at opening up military naturalisation to undocumented migrants have been proposed in the US, raising some prickly ethical questions about coercion. Offering people with few other options the chance to risk death for a country that may otherwise deport them seems problematic, much in the same way that allowing desperate people to sell their organs on the black market is problematic. After all, the benefits of citizenship can only be enjoyed if one lives long enough to enjoy them.