Sofya Aptekar is Associate Professor of Urban Studies at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies. She holds a PhD in sociology. She also taught sociology and critical ethnic and community studies at University of Massachusetts Boston.
Below, Sofya shares 5 key insights from her new book, Green Card Soldier: Between Model Citizen and Security Threat. Listen to the audio version—read by Sofya herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The US military creates immigrants and then recruits them as workers.
Immigrants have worked in the US military since its founding. With or without US citizenship, immigrants participated in every US war and military campaign. They were drafted, enlisted voluntarily, and have been pushed to enlist both economically and socially. When we consider the long history of immigrants and the US military, we also see immigrants resisting the military draft and organizing against US militarism.
But where do immigrants come from? Although it is common to imagine the United States as a perpetual American Dream magnet, drawing people from all over the world, migration is not a natural or passive process. In too many cases, the US military ravages and displaces communities across the globe, creating immigrants. Then it incorporates these immigrants into the military workforce to do more of the same.
In the early 20th century, the United States maintained a brutal colonial occupation of the Philippines. US forces slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. The US military had developed its genocidal tactics in wars against Native American nations. In the Philippines, it honed them on the mass slaughter and oppression of Filipinos. Disruption at this scale, coupled with active recruitment of workers, created a stream of Filipino immigrants to the United States. The US military, particularly the Navy, recruited Filipinos and Filipino immigrants. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos fought alongside the US military during World War II, but the promise of citizenship and veteran benefits made to them was only partially realized, and not until 50 years later. Today, Filipino immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren continue to work in the US military in disproportionate numbers.
More recently, the United States provided military training to rightwing forces in Central America to violently suppress popular socialist movements. This contributed to mass migrations of people to the United States. Today, the US military actively recruits immigrant youth from Central American immigrant communities. It touts their cultural backgrounds as extra skills they bring as workers in the service of the US imperial project in Latin America and beyond.
2. Military service is supposed to lead to US citizenship but that often doesn’t happen.
Since the Civil War, there has been an expedited track to citizenship available through labor in the military. This does not mean that military service automatically makes you a US citizen. Rather, immigrants have a reduced residency requirement to be eligible for naturalization.
“Thousands of military veterans who were not US citizens have been deported.”
About 150,000 immigrants became US citizens through the military naturalization pathway in the last 20 years. But the road to citizenship is fraught. The fit between the military and immigration systems is poor. For active-duty military workers, especially, it is difficult to go through the naturalization process while working long hours, moving often, and being limited in their ability to leave the military base. In some years, the US government rejected military naturalization applications at higher rates than it did for civilians, usually finding fault on the grounds of good moral character. This could mean committing crimes or committing fraud earlier in the immigration process. Candidates could also be disqualified by an immigration officer for some unspecified moral trait or for being labeled a “habitual drunkard,” or for being part of the Communist Party.
This matters because when immigrants become US citizens, they have protection from deportation, opportunities to sponsor the migration of family members, increased job options, and the right to vote. Being a US military veteran alone does not give one these rights and protections. Thousands of military veterans who were not US citizens have been deported.
3. Celebrating immigrant military workers helps whitewash what the US military does.
Polls show that a rising number of people in the world see US power and influence as a major threat and most Americans say that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting. What’s more, US veterans, whether or not they participated in these wars, say that the costs outweighed the benefits. The work of the US military includes protecting imperial resource extraction, enforcing political regimes benefiting US capital, and expanding and conquering new territory for further exploitation. Inside the United States, the military, militarized law, and immigration enforcement agencies crush popular resistance to resource extraction and white supremacy while maintaining the violence at the border with Mexico.
In this context, US political leaders can point to immigrant soldiers to try to legitimize themselves, the endless wars, and the military itself. Characterized as a choice, foreigners enlisting in the US military at the risk of injury and death makes US military operations seem approved and justified, even by those not born in the United States.
“US political leaders can point to immigrant soldiers to try to legitimize themselves, the endless wars, and the military itself.”
This is not new. During the Korean War in the mid-20th century, the US military took young Japanese Americans who grew up in US concentration camps during World War II and sent them to interrogate prisoners of war. Monica Kim explains how using these young people was meant to show Korean prisoners that the United States was an inclusive place for Asians and a benign force in Korea. Meanwhile, the US military dropped over half a million tons of bombs on Korea, destroying Korean cities. It deployed chemical weapons and napalm. The US military is responsible for the deaths of millions of Koreans.
Some immigrant advocates argue that immigrants deserve rights because immigrants serve in the military. Others push for undocumented youth to be able to enlist—something the Department of Defense also lobbies for. This type of advocacy feeds the US war machine and entrenches imperial violence.
4. Some say that the military helps immigrants assimilate, but there are injuries of assimilation.
The US military is often seen as a meritocratic, color-blind institution. It uses millions of taxpayers’ money to market itself that way. Yet, research shows a racial bias in promotions and military justice, discrimination in deployment assignments, and racial disparities in the risk of PTSD. White supremacist organizations have a significant presence in military ranks. Racism is built into the way the military functions, but the narrative of the military as an institution that repairs the racism of the US society is strong. The military assimilates immigrants into racial and gender hierarchies. Even when immigrants see military labor as a way to belong and become successful in the United States, they incur the costs of assuming their place in the hierarchy. These are what I call the injuries of assimilation.
Women in the military face sexual violence. Immigrant women are even more vulnerable. Heena, an immigrant from Nepal, enlisted in a desperate quest to survive financially. She explained what it was like to be the only woman in her training unit. Heena’s coworkers made unwanted sexual advances, told her she was unqualified for the job, and made misogynist jokes. Heena felt like she had to represent all women in the military, singlehandedly changing perceptions of women soldiers. Heena could not rely on the culture of male comradeship that structures military units—battle buddies who have each other’s back. At best she was a conditional member of her unit, having to prove herself. Rape culture and racialized misogyny are not unique to the military, but military contracts make the job difficult to leave and victims are isolated from supportive social networks. When they come forward, they are blamed and punished.
“What is labeled as service in the US military is physically and mentally harmful work.”
Immigrants in the military deal with suspicions of their loyalty and bear the burden of always having to prove themselves. When Heena broke her hip jumping from an airplane and had to take a break from intense physical training while it healed, she remembered being pushed to recover faster. She was told that the military could not keep her while injured. Despite the MRI that clearly showed her fractured hip, Heena’s commanding officer accused her of faking it. As an immigrant, Heena was suspected of only caring about getting US citizenship. Heena was still in pain when she decided to start jumping again, and she went on to break both ankles and a wrist.
What is labeled as service in the US military is physically and mentally harmful work. Military workers suffer from physical injuries to the body and brain, exposure to harmful substances, and deep psychological wounds. In a myriad of ways, their very work supports a violent global order enforced by the US military. The price of assimilation into US society is participation in the oppression and exclusion of others. This leaves a mark on the humanity of military workers and those of us whom the US military supposedly protects.
5. Green card soldiers are not simply victims.
Immigrants in the military are harmed by their labor. Yet, we must not think of them only as victims to be rescued. Immigrants are navigating intersecting systems of oppression that span the globe. Their experiences differ tremendously depending on how they fit into hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other social dimensions.
The military labor force faces racist, misogynist, and dangerous work conditions, but military labor is not just another job. Even though many are pushed into the military by hardships and influenced by intense marketing campaigns that target children, military workers do bear responsibility for what the US military does. But so do US civilians in whose name the US military supposedly operates. As individuals, we should consider our responsibility and complicity, keeping in mind the limits of individual action while acting with moral conviction.
Among the first US military casualties of the War on Terror were immigrants. But immigrant military workers were also among the first resisters to the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Camilo Mejía was a working-class immigrant who enlisted in the military in search of financial stability and in hopes of finding a place for himself in US society. Camilo became the first soldier to refuse a deployment to Iraq. In the course of his eight years in the military, and after witnessing the bloody work of imperialism firsthand, Mejía came to see “the absolute clarity of the wrongfulness not only of the war against Iraq, but of war in general.” As he wrote in his memoir, Road from ar Ramadi, Mejía fought his own war. In his words, it was a “war against the system I had come from, a battle against the military machine, the imperial dragon that devours its own soldiers and Iraqi civilians alike for the sake of profits.”
Mejía publicly decried the way US soldiers were treated as disposable tools of the empire. They were tools of the torture, mass murder, and racism directed at Iraqis. Mejía’s act of moral courage carried the risk of losing his lawful permanent residency and foreclosing his path to US citizenship. Mejía went on to become an outspoken critic and organizer against US imperialism while living with uncertainty about his future in the United States.
To listen to the audio version read by author Sofya Aptekar, download the Next Big Idea App today: