Abdisalam Omar of Somalia and Samuel Njuguna of Kenya came to the United States four years ago as aspiring college students.
Omar, who received a basketball scholarship, studied finance and accounting and dreamed of uniting with his family in France and finding a job in business. Njuguna, a college newspaper writer and yearbook editor, studied communications and wants to become a diplomat.
But after graduating with their bachelor's degrees from a Missouri college this spring, the duo made a decision few immigrants without U.S. green cards have ever made before: enlist in the U.S. Navy and obtain citizenship in the process.
"The possibility of being associated with the Navy SEALS got me excited," said Omar. Being a sailor seemed to "apply more to my life and what I want to do with my life than business would."
"I saw this as an opportunity to use my knowledge to support a noble mission," said Njuguna, who often enjoyed educating fellow college students about African culture and politics. "I know the U.S. military is very helpful around the world and Kenya has benefitted from what the military is doing."
Omar and Njuguna, who have completed boot camp at a Naval training facility outside of Chicago, will today take an oath of American allegiance with three other recruits, two from Nepal and one from Kenya. They are ultimately headed to San Diego, California, where they will join the military's ranks as linguists with the Navy SEALS.
"I'm not going to be a Navy SEAL," said Omar, "but I'm going to be working with them and helping them build positive relationships with wherever my regional and linguistic expertise comes into play."
The ceremony marks the first time non-citizen Naval recruits will be naturalized directly out of basic training, reflecting a Pentagon effort to recruit and enlist more immigrant sailors with special skills vital to the U.S. military's missions around the world.
"These sailors are already eligible for their own citizenship just by meeting the requirements of the (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) USCIS," said Lt. Vince Dasta, citizenship coordinator at the Navy's Recruit Training Command. But "by taking an expedited process, we're able to help these guys hit the fleet sooner and focus on their mission. A citizen is much more worldwide deployable than a non-citizen."
Thousands of Non-Citizens Serve in U.S. Military
Of the estimated 29,000 non-citizens currently serving in the U.S. military, most have green cards since the military has long required non-citizen recruits to have legal permanent residency to be eligible to serve.
A special pilot program implemented by the Pentagon last year -- known as Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, or MAVNI -- extends enlistment and citizenship opportunities to immigrants without green cards, but who are in the country legally on other visas.
The prospective sailors complete citizenship paperwork shortly after arriving at boot camp and undergo extensive background checks and interviews. Their citizenship is linked to successful completion of the military service.
"Many of them grew up in the culture, understand the culture, and are kind of a familiar face," said Dasta of the MAVNI recruits, "so that when we go to a place to work humanitarian missions, training missions, we have an innate bond because we have people that are actually from that location."
Immigrant advocates say these latest military naturalizations are a reminder of the number of non-citizens who volunteer for the U.S. military and whose service at times goes unheralded.
An estimated 8,000 green card holders enlist each year, according to the Pentagon. More than 61,000 service members have been naturalized while on active duty.
"This isn't a story about immigrants getting citizenship. This is a story about immigrants making the ultimate sacrifice to the United States," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "All of us can learn something from their example. It's the leadership from immigrants and what they bring to America as soldiers, businessmen, workers that we should keep in mind and is often overlooked."
Immigrants who join the armed forces, many of whom would be eligible for citizenship otherwise, receive expedited processing for their service.
The Navy program to help foreigners obtain citizenship straight out of boot camp is a carbon copy of the Army's MAVNI program begun in 2008 which focuses on enlistees with special health care or language and cultural skills. The Army has naturalized 1,000 immigrant soldiers upon completion of basic training through August 2009.