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Immigrant Veterans in the United States

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Magazine, Immigration, Migration Policy, By Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova

Immigrants have long enlisted in all branches of the U.S. military, beginning with the Revolutionary War. The foreign born represented half of all military recruits by the 1840s and 20 percent of the 1.5 million service members in the Union Army during the Civil War. Today, the number of veterans who were born outside the United States stands at approximately 530,000, representing 3 percent of all 18.6 million veterans nationwide. Additionally, almost 1.9 million veterans are the U.S.-born children of immigrants. Together, the 2.4 million veterans of immigrant origin, either because they themselves are immigrants or are the children of immigrants, account for 13 percent of all veterans.

Naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, and certain nationals of three countries in free association with the United States—the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau—are eligible for military service. In addition, Congress can deem other foreign-born individuals eligible to serve if the secretary of a specific military branch determines that such enlistment is vital to the national interest.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau (the 2018 Annual Social and Economic Supplement [ASEC] of the Current Population Survey [CPS] and the 2017 American Community Survey [ACS]), this Spotlight provides information on the population of immigrant veterans (ages 17 and older) in the United States, focusing on its size, top countries of origin, racial and ethnic composition, and socioeconomic characteristics. It is important to note that the Census Bureau data come from household-based surveys and are thus likely to undercount people who are homeless.

Historical Trends

Over the past decade, the total number of veterans has declined, from 26.1 million in 1995 to 18.6 million in 2018. The decrease is in part attributable to the drop in enlistments that began in the early 1990s and in part to the dying off of veterans who served during and after World War II. The number of foreign-born veterans has fluctuated slightly since 1995, when it stood at 551,000. The number increased to 597,000 in 2005 and then declined to 527,000 in 2018.

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