Judge Shoots Down Trump Rules for Soldiers on Path to Citizenship

American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan, in November 2017. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge in Washington has struck down requirements the Trump administration imposed on noncitizens serving in the United States military who seek to become citizens. 

Senior U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle issued a 62-page opinion Tuesday vacating the Defense Department’s so-called minimum service requirements, challenged by eight noncitizen U.S. service members in a class action

“While a fuller military record may be necessary to determine whether someone is suitable to serve in the military, defendants have not explained why it is necessary for eligibility to naturalize,” the judge wrote. 

Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the plaintiffs in the case included a DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, recipient and several active-duty service members who are long-time permanent residents. 

Rolled out in 2017, the now-vacated policy required noncitizen soldiers to serve for at least 180 days in active duty, or at least one year in the reservists, to get a certification that allows them to apply for naturalization. The government reported a 72% drop in service members applying for naturalization in the year after the mandate went into effect. 

But Huvelle found the Immigration and Nationality Act allows the military to determine only whether an enlistee has “served honorably” in the past when a noncitizen seeks to apply for naturalization. 

“DOD may not, through a time-in-service requirement or an active-duty requirement, convert this determination to a certification of present military suitability or active honorable service,” the judge wrote. 

The Trump administration appeared to have issued the policy making it harder for noncitizens to obtain the necessary N-426 form — required from the military to begin the naturalization process — to assess the possible security threat of lawful permanent residents who enlist. 

While the military argued in court that it was relying on similar length-of-service requirements as applied to determine an honorable discharge, the judge concluded: “administrative record paints a different narrative.”

“Two DOD memoranda prepared during the design of the N-426 policy strongly suggest that the minimum service requirements were included to address national security concerns raised by the inclusion of noncitizens in the military,” Huvelle wrote. 

The Clinton appointee added the legislative history is “ripe with evidence” that Congress has never intended such minimum time-in-service requirements to take hold in the U.S. 

Dating back to special privileges afforded to noncitizens who served in World War II, Congress made the citizenship fast track available to both active-duty soldiers and the category of reservists most often called to active duty, known as the Ready Reserve, in 2003. 

Huvelle is presiding over three other pending cases filed in 2017 and 2018 challenging Defense Department changes to the path to citizenship for noncitizen enlistees under President Donald Trump.

ACLU staff attorney Scarlet Kim praised the decision Tuesday to vacate the military policy.

“This decision rejects the Trump administration’s racist attempt to subvert this clear congressional mandate in furtherance of its anti-immigrant agenda,” Kim said in a statement. 

“We’re pleased that our clients and thousands of others like them can finally benefit from the expedited path to citizenship they have rightfully earned through their honorable military service,” the attorney added.

Ange Samma, a 22-year-old green card holder from Burkina Faso, was the lead plaintiff in the legal battle. He studied electrical engineering at community college, before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 2018 and serving in South Korea. 

The ACLU argued that Samma and his co-plaintiffs face higher risks as U.S. soldiers than their counterparts because they do not have a right to consular services and protection.

The Defense Department was not available for comment on the ruling Tuesday afternoon.

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