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Thousands receive U.S. citizenship each year through military service

Marines Naturalization.jpg
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Timothy Fowler)
U.S. Marines from 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, stand at attention during a naturalization ceremony aboard the Battleship USS North Carolina, Dec. 2, 2022. 18 Marines from 15 countries and five continents swore the Oath of Allegiance and received their citizenship. Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen after he or she fulfills the requirements to become a citizen established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Every year, roughly 8,000 noncitizens join the U.S. military. Currently, 35,000 or so noncitizens serve, according to the most recent data from U-S Customs and Immgration Services. In early December, an historic 18 marines became U.S. citizens aboard the USS North Carolina at Camp Lejeune, hailing from 14 different countries.

Corporal Nicolas Lowiza is a marine who served in Afghanistan and received citizenship while enlisted. He says he’s sought to join the Marines since he was little and heard the stories of a distant cousin who served as a marine in Iraq.

“It was always my dream ever since I was a little kid growing up in Colombia,” Corporal Lowiza said. “He told me many stories, and every time he told them he had such pride and the way he spoke about his entire experience in the marine corps, it made me fall in love with the idea of being a marine. Ever since then, I just chased that dream until I finally achieved it.”

Corporal Lowiza arrived in the U.S. in 2014 and graduated high school in Miami shortly thereafter. He joined the marines in July of 2019, but was restricted from which divisions he could join.

“My dream was to be in the special forces when I first enlisted, but I was not able to because I was not a U.S. citizen,” he said.

Non-citizens cannot serve as officers because federal law requires U.S. citizenship for those ranks. However, once enlisted, noncitizens can receive expedited citizenship.

Lt. Connor Flynn works as a liaison for the Marines to Customs and Immigration Services. He helps applicants navigate the citizenship process.

In order to apply, enlistees must meet a minimum of 180 days of service. That time requirement is usually met when marines have gone through basic training, received their assignment, and are checking in to their first unit.

The process for applying within the marines, according to Lt. Flynn, was once led at the local level, but thanks to a reorganization within his department and the opening of online applications, the process is swifter and enlistees can receive citizenship in as little as 5 months, a process for that takes on average two years for other applicants. He described working with these marines and the impact it has.

“We all have dreams to be a marines, but these people want the recognition that they are citizens,” he said. “There’s nothing closer than true citizenship other than service. “

After receiving citizenship, a number of opportunities open up for service members. They can vote, apply to be an officer, and receive prioritized migration processing for family members. But Lt. Flynn says the expedited processing benefits the military, too.

“Bottom line, it boosts morale and welfare,” he said. “By taking care of our marines and investing in them, they invest back in us.”

The Oath of Allegiance is the final step in becoming a U.S. citizen. Corporal Nicolas Lowiza remembers the day he took the Oath of Allegiance a year ago.

“I felt fulfilled. I felt happiness. I felt joy," Corporal Lowiza said. "I felt that I finally achieved what I always dreamt of as a kid.”

It’s been more than a year since that day, and now Corporal Lowiza looks to new possibilities in the future.

“I feel amazing, I feel like there are absolutely no limits, not only because I am going to be a veteran of the marine corps but also an American citizen,” he said. “That’s something that a lot of people take for granted, but it’s something that I will never take for granted because of my roots and where I come from.”

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée and two cats.