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Military Naturalizations: Federal Agencies Assist with Naturalizations, but Additional Monitoring and Assessment Are Needed

GAO-22-105021 Published: Sep 14, 2022. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2022.
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Fast Facts

Noncitizens have a long history of serving in the U.S. military. Over 100,000 noncitizens joined from FYs 2010-2021. U.S. law authorizes the expedited naturalization of current and former servicemembers.

Servicemember naturalization applications fell 78% from 2017 to 2018—from about 11,000 to 2,500. DOD and other officials attributed this temporary decline in part to DOD policy changes, such as longer service requirements.

The military services don't ensure timely certification of applicants' service and could provide more information to servicemembers on the military naturalization process. Our recommendations address these and other issues.

Military servicemembers take part in a naturalization ceremony.

military servicemembers standing outside in rows on a stairway with their right hands raised up

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Servicemember naturalization applications fell by 78 percent from approximately 11,000 in fiscal year 2017 to approximately 2,500 in 2018. These applications returned close to pre-fiscal year 2018 levels by fiscal year 2021. The percentage of these applications that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved also fell in fiscal years 2017 and 2018. According to USCIS and Department of Defense (DOD) officials, these temporary declines were due in part to DOD policy changes, such as longer service requirements to obtain military service certification.

To improve military naturalization efforts, DOD, the services, USCIS, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) should:

Develop procedures to ensure timely processing of military service certifications. Four of the five services lack procedures to ensure the timely processing of servicemember requests for certification of honorable military service. DOD policy directs the services to process these requests—a key step in the naturalization process—within 30 days.

Establish a DOD policy to ensure the services inform noncitizen servicemembers about naturalization assistance. The services offer military naturalization assistance. The Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard have processes to inform noncitizen servicemembers of such assistance. The Army also recently emailed noncitizen servicemembers about naturalization, but the Marine Corps has no such process.

Processes Services Use to Inform Noncitizen Servicemembers about Military Naturalization and Related Resources, as of April 2022

Processes Services Use to Inform Noncitizen Servicemembers about Military Naturalization and Related Resources, as of April 2022

aMarine Corps does not have a process to inform noncitizen servicemembers about military naturalization resources.

Develop plans to assess military naturalization assistance efforts. DOD, USCIS and VA have taken coordinated actions, but they have not assessed their military naturalization assistance efforts.

Addressing these issues would help ensure that servicemembers do not face unnecessary delays, and provide insights into whether noncitizen servicemembers, veterans, and their families receive appropriate information about the military naturalization process.

Why GAO Did This Study

Noncitizens have a long history of serving in the military. Over 100,000 noncitizens joined the military from fiscal years 2010 through 2021. The Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the expedited naturalization of current and former servicemembers.

GAO was asked to review issues related to the military naturalization process. This report examines (1) servicemember naturalization application data from fiscal year 2010 through 2021; (2) the extent DOD, the services, and USCIS developed and implemented military naturalization policies and procedures; and (3) the extent DOD, the services, the VA, and USCIS assist with military naturalizations and assess these efforts.

GAO analyzed USCIS data on servicemember naturalization applications and processing times. GAO also reviewed DOD, service, and USCIS military naturalization policies and procedures. GAO interviewed DOD, service, VA, and USCIS officials to determine the extent they assist with and assess military naturalization efforts.

Recommendations

GAO is making 11 recommendations including that the services develop procedures to collect information on military service certification processing timeliness; DOD establish a policy to ensure the services inform noncitizen servicemembers about naturalization assistance; and DOD, VA, and USCIS develop plans to regularly assess their military naturalization assistance efforts. DOD, VA, and USCIS agreed with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should develop a policy documenting the N-426 certification process. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In September 2022, we reported on military naturalizations. We found that the Coast Guard did not have a policy documenting the process for military service certification. Specifically, the Coast Guard had not issued a policy documenting the requirement for certifying officials to process N-426 forms-Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service-within the required 30 days. As a result, we recommended that the Commandant of the Coast Guard develop a policy to document the N-426 certification process. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with this recommendation. In March 2023, the Department of Homeland Security reported that the Coast Guard is in the process of reviewing an update to their Commandant Instruction Manual that will create a policy for documenting the N-426 certification process and expects to issue this policy in the summer of 2023. We will continue to monitor the Coast Guard's efforts to address this recommendation.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should develop a procedure to collect information on the timeliness of certifying officials' return of N-426 forms to servicemembers applying for naturalization. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In September 2022, we found that the Air Force did not have information to ensure that certifying officials process N-426 forms-Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service-within the required 30 days because they have not developed procedures for ensuring that certifying officials track and report this information. The N-426 form is required for noncitizen servicemembers to apply for naturalization. As a result, we recommended that the Secretary of the Air Force develop a procedure to collect information on the timeliness of certifying officials' return of N-426 forms to servicemembers applying for naturalization. The Air Force concurred with this recommendation. In April 2023, the Air Force updated their Total Force Personnel Services Delivery Guide to state that it is the responsibility of certifying officials to ensure that the N-426 be certified or denied within 30 days of receipt. In addition, the Air Force updated the Management Internal Control Toolset (MICT) checklist-a component of the commander-led Unit Self-Assessment Program-to include a step for ensuring that certifying officials process the N-426 forms with priority and return them to servicemembers within 30 days of submission. Unit commanders are responsible for ensuring compliance with items on the MICT checklist, including that N-426 forms are processed within 30 days. In addition, as part of the Inspection System of the Department of the Air Force, unit commanders will work with the Air Force Office of the Inspector General to conduct inspections of the MICT checklists as part of their ongoing 2 to 3 year Unit Effectiveness Inspection cycles. As a result of these procedures, the Air Force is better positioned to ensure that certifying officials process N-426 forms within 30 days of receipt.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should develop a procedure to collect information on the timeliness of certifying officials' return of N-426 forms to servicemembers applying for naturalization. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
In September 2022, we found that the Army did not have information to ensure that certifying officials process N-426 forms-Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service-within the required 30 days because they have not developed procedures for ensuring that certifying officials track and report this information. The N-426 form is required for noncitizen servicemembers to apply for naturalization. As a result, we recommended that the Secretary of the Army develop a procedure to collect information on the timeliness of certifying officials' return of N-426 forms to servicemembers applying for naturalization. The Army concurred with this recommendation. In November 2023, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command issued a written procedure for the Army Center for Initial Military Training to coordinate with all Training and Doctrine Command Centers of Excellence to manage, track, and report on the status of all applicants' N-426 forms. Specifically, Training and Doctrine Command Centers of Excellence-which house Army training schools-are responsible for providing a monthly report to the Center for Initial Military Training on the status of all N-426 applications including whether certifying officials took longer than 30 days to process the forms. This process will better position the Army to ensure that certifying officials process N-426 forms within 30 days of receipt.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should ensure that the Commandant of the Marine Corps develops a procedure to collect information on the timeliness of certifying officials' return of N-426 forms to servicemembers applying for naturalization. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In September 2022, we reported on military naturalizations. We found that the Marine Corps did not have information to ensure that certifying officials process N-426 forms-Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service-within the required 30 days because they have not developed procedures for ensuring that certifying officials track and report this information. As a result, we recommended that the Secretary of the Navy ensure that the Commandant of the Marine Corps develop a procedure to collect information on the timeliness of certifying officials' return of N-426 forms to servicemembers applying for naturalization. The Navy concurred with this recommendation. In January 2023, the Marine Corps reported that they plan to issue a message in March 2023, directing N-426 certifying officials at commands to track and report processing times for certification of the N-426 and report those metrics at least semi-annually to the Marine Corps Judge Advocate Division. In June 2023, the Marine Corps issued a memo requiring certifying officials to process N-426 forms within 30 days. While this is a positive step, to fully address this recommendation the Marine Corps should ensure a procedure is in place to collect information on the timeliness of certifying officials' return of the N-426 forms. We will continue to monitor the Marine Corps' efforts to address this recommendation.
United States Coast Guard The Commandant of the Coast Guard should develop a procedure to collect information on the timeliness of certifying officials' return of N-426 forms to servicemembers applying for naturalization. (Recommendation 5)
Open
In September 2022, we reported on military naturalizations. We found that the Coast Guard did not have information to ensure that certifying officials process N-426 forms-Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service-within the required 30 days because they have not developed procedures for ensuring that certifying officials track and report this information. As a result, we recommended that the Commandant of the Coast Guard develop a procedure to collect information on the timeliness of certifying officials' return of N-426 forms to servicemembers applying for naturalization. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with this recommendation. In March 2023, the Department of Homeland Security reported that the Coast Guard is in the process of reviewing an update to their Commandant Instruction Manual that will document procedures for collecting information on the timeliness of certifying officials' return of N-426 forms to servicemembers applying for naturalization. The Coast Guard expects to issue this policy in June 2023. We will continue to monitor the Coast Guard's efforts to address this recommendation.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services The Director of USCIS should track time frames from their receipt of the last background check to the final adjudication date for applications filed by servicemembers stationed on active duty abroad and use this information to help improve efforts to adjudicate these cases within 180 days. (Recommendation 6)
Open
In September 2022, we reported on military naturalizations. The Kendell Frederick Citizenship Assistance Act requires appropriate actions be taken to ensure that naturalization applications filed by active duty servicemembers stationed abroad receive expedited processing and are adjudicated within 180 days of the receipt of responses to all background checks. We found that USCIS did not track the duration of time between when it received all background checks and the final adjudication for naturalization applications filed by servicemembers stationed on active duty abroad. As a result, we recommended that USCIS track time frames from their receipt of the last background check to the final adjudication date for applications filed by servicemembers stationed on active duty abroad and use this information to help improve efforts to adjudicate these cases within 180 days. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with this recommendation. In March 2023, the Department of Homeland Security reported that currently USCIS can obtain information on and track the time of completion for most background checks using its Electronic Immigration System (ELIS). For those background checks for which information is not available in ELIS, USCIS is working to update and upgrade its systems. Once the system updates are completed and USCIS has a complete picture in ELIS of all background checks and their completion dates, the USCIS Field Operations Directorate plans to review the timeframes for military members abroad and see where enhancements are needed to complete their cases within 180 days of background checks being completed. USCIS estimates that it will complete these actions by September 2023. We will continue to monitor USCIS's efforts to address this recommendation.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should establish a policy to ensure that the military services develop and maintain a process to inform noncitizen servicemembers about the military naturalization process and available assistance and resources. (Recommendation 7)
Open – Partially Addressed
In September 2022, we reported on military naturalizations. We found that the Department of Defense (DOD) did not have a policy that ensured all military services were informing applicable noncitizen servicemembers about the military naturalization process, as well as available assistance and resources. As a result, the military services' notification processes on military naturalization varied. We recommended that DOD establish a policy to ensure that the military services developed and maintain a process to inform applicable noncitizen servicemembers about the military naturalization process and available assistance and resources. DOD concurred with this recommendation. DOD issued a policy in September 2022 that provides guidance to provide proper notice of options for naturalization for noncitizen recruits and servicemembers transitioning out of service. Specifically, the policy states that the military services and the United States Military Entrance Processing Command are to inform noncitizen recruits of existing naturalization programs and options during recruitment, the accession process, and during Basic Training. Further, the policy states that military services are to inform noncitizen servicemembers of the naturalization program and necessary information to assist them with the process at least once every two years via email or through delivered mail. The development of this policy is a positive step to help ensure noncitizen recruits and servicemembers are informed of the military naturalization process and related resources. DOD stated that they plan to issue a follow-on directive to the services requiring them to inform the Office of the Secretary of Defense of their process for notifying noncitizens. DOD intends to fulfill this directive by the end of September 2024. To fully address the intent of this recommendation, DOD would need to follow through with its intention to issue the follow-on directive to the services.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should establish a mechanism to monitor the military services' implementation of their processes to inform noncitizen servicemembers of the military naturalization process and available assistance. (Recommendation 8)
Open
In September 2022, we reported on military naturalizations. We found that the Department of Defense (DOD) did not have a mechanism to monitor the military services effort to inform applicable noncitizen servicemembers about the military naturalization process, as well as available assistance and resources. As a result, the military services notification efforts to noncitizen servicemembers varied. We recommended that DOD establish a mechanism to monitor the military services' implementation of their processes to inform noncitizen servicemembers of the military naturalization process and available assistance. DOD concurred with this recommendation. In January 2023, DOD reported that they issued a policy in September 2022 that directs the military services to inform noncitizen servicemembers of the naturalization program and necessary information to assist them with the process at least once every two years via email or through the United States Postal Service-delivered mail. The development of this policy is a positive step to ensure the military services are informing noncitizen servicemembers about the military naturalization application process and relevant resources more consistently. However, to fully meet this recommendation, DOD should develop a mechanism to monitor the military services are fulfilling the process DOD established in the policy. We will continue to monitor DOD's efforts to address this recommendation.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the VA and USCIS, should develop and implement a plan to regularly assess its military naturalization assistance efforts. (Recommendation 9)
Open – Partially Addressed
In September 2022, we reported on military naturalizations. We found that DOD has taken various steps individually and in coordination with VA and USCIS to assist noncitizen servicemembers and their families with the military naturalization process. However, DOD has not assessed their individual or coordinated military naturalization efforts to determine the extent noncitizen servicemembers and their families receive information on the military naturalization process, as well as receive information and resources to assist them with the application process. We recommended that DOD coordinate with the VA and USCIS to develop and implement a plan to regularly asses its military naturalization efforts. DOD concurred with this recommendation. In October 2023, DOD provided us with a memo signed by DOD and USCIS officials documenting their agreement to coordinate their efforts to educate U.S. military service members about the naturalization process and its benefits. The memo outlines the responsibilities of both DOD and USCIS and records the agencies' agreement to review the memo within one year and make any needed adjustments. DOD also shared with us agendas from the military naturalization working group meetings in the summer of 2023 between DOD and USCIS in which the status of their naturalization efforts was discussed. To fully address this recommendation, in addition to coordinating with USCIS, DOD should demonstrate that it has also coordinated with the VA to jointly assess their coordinated military naturalization assistance efforts. Taking steps to participate in the assessment of USCIS, VA, and DOD military naturalization efforts would provide DOD insights into the extent noncitizen servicemembers are receiving appropriate information and assistance from DOD about applying for naturalization, and into the extent to which program changes may be needed in the future. We will continue to monitor DOD's efforts to address this recommendation.
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, in coordination with DOD and USCIS, should develop and implement a plan to regularly assess its military naturalization assistance efforts. (Recommendation 10)
Open
In September 2022, we reported on military naturalizations. We found that VA has taken various steps individually and in coordination with DOD and USCIS to assist noncitizen servicemembers and their families with the military naturalization process. However, VA has not assessed their individual or coordinated military naturalization efforts to determine the extent noncitizen servicemembers and their families receive information on the military naturalization process, as well as receive information and resources to assist them with the application process. We recommended that VA coordinate with DOD and USCIS to develop and implement a plan to regularly assess its military naturalization efforts. VA concurred with this recommendation. In August 2023, VA told us that they have begun providing noncitizen veterans with information on the benefits of obtaining their citizenship and support that is available to them through the VA's Solid Start program. As of August 24, 2023, the agency had received over 123,000 records of noncitizen servicemembers over a 20-year period and has been able to send messages to 70 percent of these records. Additionally, information and resources on naturalization is available to servicemembers transitioning out of the military through a one-day training. These are positive steps. However, as of August 2023, the VA had not coordinated with DOD and USCIS to assess their military naturalization efforts and did not have a timeframe to develop such assessment. To fully address this recommendation, VA should coordinate with DOD and USCIS to develop and implement assessment plans that would provide the agencies the opportunity to jointly assess their coordinated military naturalization assistance efforts. Developing and implementing an assessment plan with DOD and USCIS would provide VA insights into the extent noncitizen servicemembers are receiving appropriate information and assistance from VA about applying for naturalization, and into the extent to which program changes may be needed in the future. We will continue to monitor VA's efforts to address this recommendation.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services The Director of USCIS, in coordination with DOD and VA, should develop and implement a plan to regularly assess its military naturalization assistance efforts. (Recommendation 11)
Open – Partially Addressed
In September 2022, we reported on military naturalizations. We found that USCIS has taken various steps individually and in coordination with DOD and VA to assist noncitizen servicemembers and their families with the military naturalization process. However, USCIS has not assessed their individual or coordinated military naturalization efforts to determine the extent noncitizen servicemembers and their families receive information on the military naturalization process, as well as receive information and resources to assist them with the application process. We recommended that USCIS coordinate with DOD and VA to develop and implement a plan to regularly assess its military naturalization efforts. USCIS concurred with this recommendation. In April 2023, USCIS shared that multiple USCIS Directorates work regularly with DOD and VA to provide outreach to military members-both active and former-as well as family members, to ensure they have access to information regarding naturalization and other immigration benefits. According to USCIS, these efforts include, among other things, engaging with various outside entities on the services available to military members, and monthly meetings between USCIS and DOD to coordinate efforts to reach military members. In May 2023, USCIS provided us with Military Naturalization Working Group's work plan to assess its various efforts and timeframes for completing its work. Among other things, the strategy highlighted DOD and USCIS outreach with veterans' organizations to educate those with military service about gaining U.S. citizenship. The work plan also outlined USCIS planned outreach efforts on military bases. In addition, in October 2023, DOD provided us with a signed memo signed by DOD and USCIS officials documenting their agreement to coordinate their efforts to educate U.S. military service members and the naturalization process and its benefits. While these are all positive steps, to fully address this recommendation, USCIS should demonstrate that it continues to coordinate with DOD and VA to assess its military naturalization efforts. According to USCIS, the agency has not met with VA since the Spring 2023. We continue to believe that the collaboration between USCIS, DOD, and VA would provide USCIS insights into the extent current and former noncitizen servicemembers are receiving appropriate information and assistance from USCIS about applying for naturalization, and into the extent to which program changes may be needed in the future.

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