Noncitizen service members with the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion to the D.C. Court of Appeals Monday pressuring the Biden administration to choose between defending a Trump-era policy, which complicated expedited citizenship for noncitizen service members, or dropping the administration’s appeal after a years-long pause in the case.

The issue stems from a lower court decision striking down the October 2017 policy from the Trump-appointed Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who expanded reviews of noncitizen service members and extended service time requirements to 180 days in order for active-duty troops to receive naturalization paperwork.

The Trump administration appealed the lower court decision, but President Joe Biden assumed office while the appeal was still active. The Biden administration, with the support of noncitizen service members’ attorneys, asked the court to pause the proceedings to develop a new policy for naturalizing members of the military.

The appeals court agreed to the pause while requiring updates every 60 days on the administration’s development of a new service member naturalization policy.

Over the subsequent three years, the government submitted 17 updates containing identical text.

“It’s been quite disappointing that the Biden administration has not made proactive efforts to facilitate naturalization for service members, especially because it was a ‘100-day promise’ Biden had made,” ACLU staff attorney Scarlet Kim told Military Times. “He even issued an executive order within the first few months of being in office, where he asked DOD to prioritize determining how to facilitate naturalization for noncitizens and implementing changes to that effect. We’ve just seen very little along those lines.”

Pentagon spokesman Joshua Wick said it is the policy of the department to not comment on current court cases. The Pentagon did not immediately respond to request for comment on the status of any new naturalization policy for noncitizen service members.

Still, the Trump-era policy, which went against past measures of naturalization for noncitizen service members, was struck down, Kim told Military Times, meaning noncitizen service members should continue to become citizens by the time they graduate from basic training. But that has not always been the case.

In August 2021, lawyers with the ACLU filed a motion to compel the Pentagon to comply with the district court ruling upon hearing that in multiple instances noncitizen service members were not given proper forms by their chain of command necessary for starting the naturalization process.

A number of noncitizen service members were told they would need to wait until after basic training and shipping out to their first duty station, according to court documents.

“We had been hearing from so many [noncitizen service members] that at basic training they were being confronted with the old policy,” Kim told Military Times. “We still do hear some reports that the vacatur of the old policy has not fully resolved the issue.

“The Department of Defense should do a better job of making it absolutely crystal clear that the old policy is gone and [begin] facilitating naturalization proactively for noncitizen service members.”

Immediately following the Trump-era policy change, between fiscal years 2017 and 2018, applications from service members for United States citizenship plummeted by 65%, from roughly 11,000 to 2,500. The percentage of those applications that were approved also declined, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

USCIS has naturalized more than 148,000 members of the military since 2002.

In September 2022, a Government Accountability Office report found the military faltered in providing timely, informative guidance to noncitizen troops about the naturalization process.

Defense Department policy changes, poorly completed procedures and a lack of available information all contributed to a brief decline in service member naturalization applications, the report stated.

Zamone “Z” Perez is a reporter at Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.

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