WASHINGTON (AP) — When Esmita Spudes Bidari was a young girl in Nepal, she dreamed of being in the military, but that wasn’t a real option in her country.
Last week, she raised her right hand and took an oath to join the US Army Reserves, thanks in part to a Dallas recruiter who is also Nepali and contacted her through an online group.
Bidari, who heads for basic training in August, is just the latest of a growing number of legal migrants to enlist in the US military as it more aggressively seeks immigrants, providing a fast track towards citizenship for those who register.
Struggling to overcome recruiting shortages, the Army and Air Force have stepped up their marketing to entice legal residents to enlist, publishing brochures, working on social media and expanding their reach, especially in city centers. A key element is the use of recruiters with similar backgrounds to these potential recruits.
“It’s one thing to hear about the army from people here, but it’s another when it’s from your brother, from the country you come from,” said Bidari, who was contacted by Army Staff Sgt. Dallas scout Kalden Lama on a Facebook group that helps Nepalese in America connect with each other. “This brother was in the group and he was recruiting and he told me about the army.”
The military has been successful in recruiting legal immigrants, especially among those seeking employment, benefits, and training as well as a fast track to becoming an American citizen. But they also need extra security screening and extra help filling out forms, especially those with lower English proficiency.
The Army and Air Force say they won’t meet their recruiting goals this year, and the Navy also expects it won’t. Pulling more from the legal immigrant population may not provide large numbers, but any small boost will help. The Marine Corp is the only service capable of achieving its goal.
The shortcomings have led to a wide range of new recruiting schemes, advertising campaigns and other incentives to help the services compete with often better paying and less risky jobs in the private sector. Defense leaders say young people are less familiar with the military, are more attracted to jobs at companies that offer similar education and other perks, and want to avoid the risk of injury and death than service to the defense of the United States could result. Additionally, they say just over 20% meet the physical, mental, and character requirements to join.
“We have large populations of legal residents of the United States who are exceptionally patriotic, they are exceptionally grateful for the opportunities this country has provided,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas, command chief of the United States. service recruitment.
The biggest challenges have been identifying geographic pockets of immigrant populations, finding ways to reach them, and helping interested individuals navigate complex military recruiting applications and procedures.
Last October, the military reinstated a program allowing lawful permanent residents to apply for expedited naturalization once they complete basic training. Recruiters began reaching out on social media, using short videos in different languages to target the top 10 countries recruits came from in the previous year.
The Air Force effort began this year, and the first group of 14 people graduated from basic training and were sworn in as new citizens in April. They included recruits from Cameroon, Jamaica, Kenya, the Philippines, Russia and South Africa. By mid-May, there were about 100 people in basic training who had started the citizenship process and about 40 who had completed it.
Thomas said the program required changes to Air Force policy, coordination with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and a careful screening process to ensure there were no no security risk.
“We need to take exceptional measures to be able to thoroughly review and complete the security clearance investigation,” he said, adding that in many cases immigrants are not immediately placed in jobs requiring top secret clearance.
Under the new program, recruits are quickly enrolled in the citizenship system and when they begin basic training, an accelerated process begins, including all required documents and tests. By the time Air Force recruits complete their seven weeks of training, the process is complete and they are sworn in as US citizens.
The first group of 14 included several people seeking various medical jobs, while another wants to become an air transport specialist. Thomas said Airwoman First Class Natalia Laziuk, 31, who emigrated from Russia nine years ago, had dreamed of being an American citizen since she was 11 and learned about the military by watching movies and American television.
“Talking to this young airman, she basically said, ‘I just wanted to be of service to my country,'” he said. “And that’s a story that we see played out over and over and over again. I’ve spoken to a number of these people across the country. They’re hungry to serve.”
For Bidari, who arrived in the United States in 2016 to attend college, the fast track to citizenship was important because it will allow her to travel more easily and bring her parents to the United States. Speaking on a call from Chicago just a day after being sworn in, she said she had enlisted for six years and hopes her future citizenship will help her become an officer.
In Chicago earlier this year, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth heard from a number of recruiters about the increased awareness of immigrant communities and how it helped them reach their numbers. In fiscal year 2022, they said, the Chicago recruiting battalion recruited 70 lawful permanent residents and already this year they recruited 62.
More broadly in the military, nearly 2,900 enlisted in the first half of this fiscal year, compared to about 2,200 in the same period a year earlier. The largest number come from Jamaica, with 384, followed by Mexico, the Philippines and Haiti, but many come from Nepal, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
“As a little girl, watching soldiers, I always had admiration for them,” Bidari said, recalling British troops in Nepal. “Yesterday when I got to take that oath…I don’t think I have words to really explain how I felt. When they said, ‘Welcome future soldier,’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, it is happening.’ »