The U.S. military draft ended just over five decades ago, and military enlistments have been declining over the past 40 years. At the same time, the proportion of the U.S. foreign-born population has been increasing—despite a naturalization process that is both “chaotic and often based on chance,” says Cristina-Ioana Dragomir, an NYU Liberal Studies clinical professor who studies migration.

To help ease the path to citizenship for legal immigrants and in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush signed an executive order in 2002 amending the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act to give “expedited naturalization” to noncitizens serving in the military since 9/11.

Over the past 20 years, many scholars have examined how this change affected both the military and the immigration process. Others have studied how perceptions of immigrants have evolved: Research last year by NYU sociologist Victoria Asbury-Kimmel, for example, showed that views of immigrants vary by political party.

But what about the impact of military service on immigrants themselves?

Book cover: "Making the Immigrant Soldier"

Dragomir explores this question in her book Making the Immigrant Soldier (University of Illinois Press), which centers on the lives of three immigrants who enlisted in the military and eventually became U.S. citizens: Lily, from Romania; Alexa, from South America; and Vikrant, from India. (Dragomir notes that the names have been changed for privacy reasons, and Alexa’s nation of origin—a small country recovering from a dictatorship—has been concealed at her request.

All three were in their twenties or thirties when they came to the U.S. on non-immigrant temporary visas, and all arrived with the aim of improving their socioeconomic situation. 

Through her analysis based on interviews with each of the three subjects over the course of seven years, Dragomir, an immigrant from Romania, illuminates how military service, combined with other factors, such as race, gender, and social class, presented both obstacles and opportunities for a better life in America.

NYU News spoke with Dragomir in mid-December, as Congress was debating border-security measures and an overhaul to immigration laws, holding up aid to both Ukraine and Israel in the process. Shortly after this conversation, the state of Texas passed a law allowing state and local law enforcement to arrest and deport those suspected of being in the country illegally—an attempt to claim a power that has historically rested solely with the federal government.

Immigration is a divisive issue, but the immigrants you interviewed are sworn into an institution, you write, that “emphasizes its commitment to the unity of the nation.” Can we draw from the military in seeking ways to find some common ground?

Naturalization via military service presents an intriguing paradox in the context of immigration. While the U.S. military’s vision prioritizes the unity of the nation, it also highlights the contributions of immigrants who serve and swear allegiance to this unified goal. The military exemplifies how individuals from diverse backgrounds, including immigrants, can come together under a shared purpose for a greater good of a community or a nation.

However, mirroring the military’s approach to immigration at the national level is a more complex endeavor. While the military emphasizes unity, public sentiments reflect diverse opinions and divergent political stances when it comes to immigration. So finding a common ground on immigration involves navigating a complex web of cultural, economic, and political factors—and these might not align with a military's model of unity.

But there are nevertheless valuable lessons that we can draw from the military’s vision. The military underscores the importance of acknowledging and leveraging the strengths of diversity, while fostering a sense of shared purpose and belonging to a larger community. So by adopting principles of inclusivity, respect for differences, and a focus on common goals, there is a potential.

Yet, I would like to add, the military’s own vision is not always fully accomplished. The three participants that are the focus of my research showcase how, in spite of this vision, cleavages that we see in the civilian life—along the lines of race, class, gender, and ethnicity—persist within the military experience and furthermore can really put the idea of the unity of the nation and the unity of the military under scrutiny.

As you just alluded to, you found that the trio’s service experiences varied in ways that were linked to gender, race, and country of origin. But were there ways that what you call the “superimposed military identity” that they had in common served as a counterweight to these differences in treatment?

One thing all three participants in this research had in common was how proud they were to serve in the American armed forces, despite encountering numerous obstacles. They were excited to enlist, and they were really glad to wear the American military uniform. They were happy to join and to be recognized as members of the nation and of its military. In other words, all three of them, to varying degrees, embraced the superimposed military identity. All three shared with me that they mostly appreciated how others perceived them as the result of their enlistment. So it is important to mention that this superimposed military identity acts not only on the immigrant soldiers, but also on all the enlistees—both native-born and foreign-born.

At the same time, the superimposed military identity acts in the civilian realm as well. So what it means is that a lot of people recognize you not as an individual and not as a migrant anymore, but as a member of a well-known institution of the state and mostly a highly respected one as well. The three participants shared with me that they felt more recognized when their military identity prevailed—when they were uniform, for instance. As I argue in the book, integration and becoming a citizen is a long, laborious, and uneven process. But overall, those I interviewed transformed greatly through this experience, and the military gave them the means and the tools to operate both within the military and the civilian realm.

You refer to the concept of patriotism throughout the book. In speaking with Lily, Alexa, and Vikrant, did their use of the term vary from how you think native-born Americans understand it?

For many migrants, patriotism towards the United States isn’t something that is simply assumed by others—patriotism is a standard by which they are constantly evaluated. And therefore, in order to secure their place in the military and in the host country, they have to perform it. Their citizen counterparts, especially soldiers, do not face this standard from the get-go. They do not have to argue for their love of America.

But for immigrants, especially those serving in the American military, it's a different starting point. They need to prove their allegiance, so they need to perform it. And sometimes they need to overperform their patriotism as they are always suspected of not being one of “us.” So Lily, Alexa, and Vikram were often communicating their patriotism through a variety of means, such as saluting the flag or, eventually, applying for U.S. citizenship.

But it was interesting to see how their feelings of patriotism and how their performed patriotism was not always acknowledged by native-born Americans. In spite of this performance of patriotism on the part of the three participants, native-born soldiers would still refer to them according to their foreign identity.

Cristina-Ioana Dragomir

Cristina-Ioana Dragomir

It’s important to say that the performances of patriotism also varied greatly among the three participants. Lily and Vikram were more accepted, and sometimes they were discussed by their superiors as model soldiers or model citizens, and therefore they were more eager to show their patriotism. Alexa, on the other hand, was confronted by more specific forms of “othering”—of being seen as being from somewhere else. And, as a result, she was the most reticent in displaying patriotism, and she was the one who delayed obtaining American citizenship until the last moment.

So I think it's really important when thinking about individual feelings of patriotism—of migrants or of migrant soldiers in this case—to also consider how immigrants as people are systematically treated and how they are accepted or not by the host country. I don't think patriotism only comes from the individuals or from the migrants or from the migrant soldiers. It actually comes through this very complex dynamic between the individuals and the system they are entering into.

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Photo credit: Getty Images/alexskopje.

Earlier this year, a Gallup poll showed that confidence in the U.S. military is at a 20-year low—even among Republicans, who are historically more supportive of the armed forces. How did your own perceptions of the U.S. military change over the course of working on this multi-year project?

As an immigrant myself, I did not know much about the U.S. military as an institution when I started the project. My view drew, mostly, from American and global popular culture. So through this research process, I really learned a lot. I was most struck by seeing the military’s connection with the state—it changed my perception of the American government. The U.S. military, maybe much more than other militaries across the world, is an institution that operates within the framework of the larger American state. And more importantly, it performs many of the attributes and duties of the state. So, for example, you have the GI Bill, which offers financial help for individuals to obtain higher education. There are very few institutions that offer financial support for large numbers of people. Military service is one of the ways in which Americans can access education benefits.

And while at times the military follows the progress of society, the U.S. military has also been a pioneer in promoting rights for minorities. So, for example, President Harry Truman, who signed the executive order in 1948 to create the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces, which desegregated the U.S. military and paved the way for many other endeavors of racial equality within the United States. Right now, we all know that we deal with an outdated and often obsolete immigration system in the United States. And while definitely not in a perfect or smooth way, the U.S. military still offers a path to citizenship and naturalization and integration with migrants. So those aspects, I think, are very important when we are thinking about the U.S. military—it is not only about training soldiers and engaging globally, but it also plays a significant role domestically in offering certain benefits and rights to many citizens and migrants.

This is not to say that we are looking at a perfect institution that offers perfect programs for native-born citizens and for immigrants. But it’s an institution that offers a realm of programs that act as incentives for the people who are enlisting in its forces.

We really need the kinds of programs that the military has been offering to also be created within civilian life. What the participants in my study benefited from are through the rights that the military gave them. It would be great if those kinds of programs and those kinds of rights would be available for migrants in the civilian realm as well—such as reliable access to health care—and not only be available within the military.