In 2010, while leading a U.S. Army command post in Afghanistan, I was struck by how the immigrants in our ranks made our unit stronger. As we set up our headquarters, a soldier from Ecuador showed us how to organize the buildings’ layout to get the best cross-ventilation. Another from the Caribbean had a great strategy for conserving wood. As an immigrant myself — I was born in Nigeria — I was inspired by how we combined our cultural wisdom and engineering solutions to create a first-rate command post.
As a retired U.S. Army major, I’ve seen firsthand how welcoming people from a variety of backgrounds into our military teaches us all to be more collaborative and innovative. That’s why I disagree with the Trump Administration’s efforts to restrict immigrants from serving in our military — whether it’s adding extra red tape for green card holders or failing to offer new recruits protection from deportation if their visas expire even after they enlisted.
I think it’s crucial that we recognize the unique perspectives and specialized skills that our immigrant soldiers can offer this nation. President George W. Bush recognized in 2002 the value of immigrants in military when he signed an executive order to expedite citizenship proceedings for noncitizens serving in the military. In 2009, the U.S. Defense Department began permitting noncitizens who possess critical language and health care skills to serve through a program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest. The program has enabled the military to fill critical skills gaps that are vital to our national defense. Unfortunately, it was closed to new applicants in 2016, and by the summer of 2018, the department reportedly had discharged as many as 500 immigrant recruits with those skills, even though research shows the U.S. military still struggles to fill such shortages.
Immigrants play a sizable role in our military, accounting for nearly 5 percent of all personnel. Nationally, there are more than 190,000 foreign-born residents serving in our forces — more than a quarter of whom are active duty, according to research by New American Economy. Here in Texas, there are 15,160 foreign-born residents in the military, and 4,068 are on active duty. There’s also proof from Pentagon research that immigrant soldiers serve longer than native-born troops.
We come from all over the world, but we are proud to wear the same uniform to defend our adopted nation. For me, serving this country has been the pride of my life, though when I enlisted I never imagined I’d stay for 20 years. Back then, I was a teenager living with my family in New York City. I was hoping to go to college but as a noncitizen was not eligible for financial aid or in-state tuition. While watching the Yankees play the Mets, I saw an advertisement for the Army. “Be all that you can be,” it said.
The Army did enable me to be all that I could be. It provided the financial help that enabled me to graduate from college. After that I became a paratrooper and traveled the world. I served in Afghanistan and helped civilians in Japan after the typhoon. But the most important lesson I learned is that my military achievements were never about me. I loved joining my brothers and sisters to fight for a cause larger than ourselves: the United States of America. After I became a commander, I dedicated myself to the brave men and women I led.
When it comes to the mission of keeping our borders secure, we already have the world’s best and brightest here. They simply want the opportunity to defend the country they love.