Foreign-born sailors, Marines take oath, now serve as U.S. citizens
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Then Son never had a passport before — tough stuff for a guy inclined to travel.
So the native Cambodian-raised-in-Vietnam-Thailand-resident-refugee-to-the-United States joined the U.S. Navy. And on Friday, the petty officer 3rd class found his sense of place as an American citizen.
Son was one of 94 sailors and Marines from 28 countries who took the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony at Yokosuka Naval Base.
“I was never from anywhere,” Son said. “Now I can get a passport and have the right to vote. Everyone asks you if you’re a citizen and now I can say ‘yes.’”
The ceremony was one of the “largest overseas sittings” since the October 2004 legislative change that allowed naturalization to members of the Armed Forces serving abroad, said Jose Olivares, officer-in-charge attaché to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
According to the USCIS Web site, 1,006 servicemembers became citizens while overseas in 2005 at embassies, consulates and military installations.
Active-duty military get fast-tracked due to the war on terrorism. President Bush signed the Expedited Naturalization Executive Order in 2002, which allows active-duty military to file immediately for citizenship during “periods of conflict,” as opposed to the previous requirement of completing one year of honorable service.
“I’ve seen active-duty military get citizenship in six months of service,” Olivares said Friday. “But it usually takes six months to a year.”
So far, the USCIS has overseen granting citizenship to more than 20,000 troops under the expedited order. The agency estimates another 40,000 active-duty servicemembers are eligible to apply.
Seaman Kwadjo Ofosu, a native of Ghana now assigned to the USS Gary, filed for U.S. citizenship while he was in boot camp, he said.
The Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks steered him into the Navy, he said.
“I was racking up student loans at the University of Connecticut and was in front of the television during the attacks,” Ofosu said. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to join the Navy to help out.’”
U.S. citizenship allows Seaman Steven Marriott, also assigned to the Gary, more opportunity than he would have had in his native Jamaica, he said Friday.
“It means more open doors,” Marriott said. “Jamaica and America support each other. I’m happy to be here.”
Schedule can complicate citizenship process
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Getting “trapped” on an U.S. Navy aircraft carrier isn’t usually a part of Jose Olivares’ job description.
But to catch up with sailors wanting U.S. citizenship, the officer-in-charge attaché to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services flew to the USS Kitty Hawk this summer to conduct more than 50 naturalization interviews.
“I was a Marine once but now I don’t normally do those risky things,” Olivares said. “But we don’t want the servicemembers to fall through the cracks while they’re at sea.”
The citizenship process can be difficult for U.S. sailors to complete, due in part to their deployment schedules and in part because they often don’t tell their commands they’re seeking citizenship, Olivares said Friday.
When sailors don’t tell their bosses they’re in the immigration process, finding them is difficult, he said. A further complication: Some of the required forms have expiration dates attached.
“It’s a big obstacle,” Olivares said. “Sailors assume that we can track them through the paperwork, that the paperwork follows wherever they go, but that’s not always the case.”
He said processing takes a combined effort of the Department of State, Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Navy.
But once the sailor tells the command an N-400 form is pending, Olivares said, that information is passed along to the legal office, putting the sailor into the citizenship pipeline.
Servicemembers can download the forms for free online, including N-400, the application for naturalization or citizenship; the N-426, a request for certification of military service; and G-325B, biographic information. These must be completed before a sailor can be given the required interview, Olivares said.
In the Pacific, naturalization ceremonies are held almost every quarter in Okinawa and Yokosuka, he said.
— Allison Batdorff