Not surprisingly, citizenship is a factor when obtaining a U.S. security clearance and being granted access to classified information. Following recent coverage of immigrant enlistees in the U.S. military being given the boot, some are questioning if inability to obtain security clearance is a factor. Personnel security was listed as the motivation behind at least one discharge, but it’s unclear if that was a background investigation issue, or something else.
Can an Immigrant to the United States Obtain a Clearance?
Immigrants are absolutely able to obtain a U.S. security clearance – but immigration status matters. The National Industrial Security Program Operating Manual states that an individual must be a U.S. citizen in order to obtain a security clearance. Legal permanent residents or illegal immigrants who have not obtained citizenship would not be able to obtain a full security clearance.
While immigrants already granted citizenship are eligible for a security clearance, it does not mean their path to a security clearance is easy. At a time when a Top Secret security clearance for DoD contractors takes 533 days for the fastest 90 percent of applicants, brand-new citizens clearly face exceptional hurdles in moving through the security clearance process. Country of citizenship matters. Individuals coming from areas of unrest – where family connections are difficult to verify, an individual’s history is difficult to verify, and obvious gaps in information are present – must work exceptionally hard to provide the information necessary to verify and support the background investigation’s information requirements.
Foreign influence was the third most common cause for security clearance denial or revocation in 2017. Foreign influence is a significant factor for immigrants with close ties to their home country, or who are from countries with hostilities against the United States (an immigrant from Germany faces a far easier path to a security clearance than an immigrant from Iran). Foreign preference may also be a factor for individuals who continue to support family members back home, or who send a significant percentage of their income to their ‘home’ country. This is a factor for many immigrants from Latin America. The security clearance background investigation is designed to ensure your primary allegiance is to the United States. Close, ongoing, binding ties with anyone living in a foreign country will be an issue in obtaining a security clearance.
Do all Service Members Require Security Clearances?
While military service is considered a national security position, not all military jobs require a security clearance. Individuals considering military service often factor in security clearances in their decision about what military job to pursue. Positions from military police to signals intelligence require a security clearance. A variety of other positions do not require a security clearance. Many young, new enlistees don’t even know or understand if their military job requires a clearance – here’s a hint – if you had to fill out an SF-86, your job requires a clearance! Over the course of a military career, many individuals who may not have initially required a clearance may find themselves needing access to classified information. If access is required as a part of a military career change, an SF-86 will be filled out at that time, and a background investigation process begun.
Immigrants and the MAVNI Program
Back to the recent question of individuals being booted from the military for personnel security reasons: In October of 2017, the Pentagon issued new guidance concerning the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program. MAVNI was enacted during the Bush Administration and allows the U.S. military to recruit illegal immigrants and non-citizens into military service, in exchange for a pathway to citizenship. The October policy change required all MAVNI recruits to have a favorable Single Scope Background Investigation (SSBI), as well as increased service requirements before expedited citizenship would be considered. The SSBI requirement came just as the government’s security clearance backlog was barreling toward 700,000 applications, and delays were nearing record highs. In the Department of Defense announcement of the policy change, it listed the OPM clearance backlog, and noted this could delay some individuals citizenship applications as well as their ability to ship to basic training. Previously, it had allowed MAVNI applicants to ship to basic training if the investigation was initiated – even if it had not been completed. The October policy changed that.
Recent reports of individuals who have been booted from the military may very well be those individuals who have finally worked their way through the background investigation process – and found themselves unable to mitigate issues of foreign preference or influence, or who have financial or personal conduct issues. While the MAVNI program is a unique path to citizenship – the security clearance process is not. While background investigations are notoriously subjective, they are also notably more difficult for immigrants – particularly non-citizens.