As the U.S. military struggles through the worst recruitment crisis in 25 years, it has redoubled efforts to recruit from immigrant communities. Immigrants who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents are eligible to join the armed forces – and have done so since the beginning of U.S. history.

Service in the military means an expedited path to U.S. citizenship, and many assume that the desire to get U.S. citizenship is what pushes immigrants to enlist. I interviewed 72 noncitizens from 28 countries who enlisted in the U.S. military for my book, “Green Card Soldier: Between Model Immigrant and Security Threat.”

I learned that the fast track to citizenship is not as important in explaining immigrant enlistments as economic factors like poverty and debt, and cultural factors, such as valuing warrior masculinity and legitimization of war.

The immigrant twist on the poverty draft

The U.S. military has not had a draft since 1973 and instead has relied on marketing and recruiters to attract people into its ranks.

Lack of a high school diploma or GED, low scores on military entrance tests and failure to meet physical and medical requirements disqualify most youths in the U.S. from enlistment. Along with college aspirations and living in an area with military presence, lower socioeconomic status is positively associated with enlistment. That youths from poorer backgrounds are more likely to join the military has been termed the “poverty draft” by critics of military recruitment.

Young Americans who want to go to college are attracted to the educational benefits of military service. Those with no plans to attend college see the military as a steady, nonstigmatized job with benefits.

Immigrants, too, are subject to this poverty draft.


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