Guide to U.S. Immigration for Military Spouses

The U.S. immigration system is a complicated bureaucracy at the best of times, but add the military into the mix, and things can become even more complicated. So where to start? And where to turn when you need support and advice?

The place to start if you are beginning the immigration process is the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) website, which includes specific pages that provide information for military-connected immigrants and on military-connected immigration:

You will find all the official forms you will need for every stage of the immigration process and instructions for completing those forms — for free — on the USCIS website. Never pay anyone for a copy of any USCIS forms.

Next, save in your phone contacts (877) 247-4645. This is the toll-free helpline established by USCIS exclusively for members of the military and their families. Customer service specialists are available to answer calls Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. CST, excluding federal holidays. More information can be found here.

For early petitions when a servicemember is sponsoring you, you generally will need the servicemember with you when you call the helpline. After you have been granted a green card, you are able to call the helpline on your own. Call the toll-free number for questions about:

  • bringing a spouse, fiancé, or adopted child to the U.S.;
  • obtaining posthumous citizenship for a deceased member of the U.S. armed forces;
  • submitting an application for expedited processing (OCONUS assignments and deployments);
  • checking the status of any other application or petition;
  • notifying USCIS of a new mailing address or duty station; and
  • tracking Form N-400, Application for Naturalization.

Note: The military helpline staff cannot help with I-751 Removal of Conditions petitions. For information and assistance on these, you will need to call the main USCIS line. 

It is important to be realistic about the timelines and the costs involved in the immigration process. While servicemembers can apply for naturalization without cost, there is no such automatic waiver of fees for military family members. A fee waiver form — Form I-912 —  is available on the USCIS website, but you will need to provide evidence of financial need. The process from the I-131 petition all the way through to citizenship can cost well in excess of $3,000, and that’s without attorney fees or the cost of obtaining foreign police clearances or other supporting documentation required.

Ask for support from friends and your servicemember’s unit or squadron. Affidavits are required to demonstrate the legitimacy of your relationships. Collecting these once you have known someone for at least two years can make the gathering of documentation easier when you also are dealing with a PCS. 

Remember the legal office on each base or installation notarizes documents or certifies a copy of a document is a true copy, without charge. In much of the U.S., local banks or nonprofit organizations have a notary public available to notarize without cost. 

At every stage, make sure all advice you are seeking and receiving is from official sources or from a military source or organization that specializes in immigration. If you are looking for an attorney, look for one who specializes in immigration and preferably specializes in military-connected immigration law. The military-connected nonprofit Esposas Miltares Hispanas USA Armed Forces is an excellent organization that provides support to many military-connected immigrants, especially Spanish speakers.

Military Sources of Information

The reality is the U.S. military does not generally provide support or information for military family members — so be aware that seeking out the legal office on base is unlikely to yield information or services that will walk you step-by-step through the process. If you have general questions about the forms, you might find legal assistance can help if you are really stuck, but the USCIS military helpline (877-247-4645) is much more equipped to help answer questions.

Air Force — Air Force base legal offices do not handle immigration matters as a general rule, the exception are those JAG officers involved in supporting those recruits applying for citizenship during basic training. For those who are in the midst of making decisions about immigration as a result of marriage in the future, it is important to note marriage in overseas commands has its own guidance. AFI 36-2609 provides guidance for Air Force servicemembers seeking to marry outside of theU.S.. Even if you marry in the US, servicemembers marrying foreign nationals also should speak to their command about any additional permissions needed, and you might need to meet with the base security office to provide additional information.

Army — Army JAG offices don’t generally handle or offer legal assistance on immigration for military dependents. Some ACS offices do provide information and support for military servicemembers and dependents in relation to immigration. It also should be noted some JAG offices list their services on their post website and many now have Facebook pages. Servicemembers marrying foreign nationals or planning on marrying outside of the U.S. should speak with their command to ensure they adhere to current regulations.

Coast Guard — The Legal Assistance Office instruction lists citizenship, green cards, and visas as subtypes of legal assistance offered by the Coast Guard to the extent that legal assistance resources and expertise permit. Contact the legal assistance office closest to you, and see whether and how they can assist.

Marine Corps — Marine Corps JAG offices do not specifically assist military servicemembers and dependents with immigration forms or advice. They offer some information on legal service office webpages, like this one from Marine Corps Base Camp Smedley D. Butler. OCONUS offices are more likely to offer information for immigrant military spouses. Servicemembers planning on marrying a foreign national should speak to their command about policies and procedures to ensure they have approval. 

National Guard — They might have a legal detachment, but many National Guard units use the installation or closest JAG is for UCMJ violations. Start with your legal detachment to find out what assistance they can offer.

Navy — One of the best military resources for any military-connected immigrant is the U.S. Navy Immigration and Naturalization page. It explains the process of applying for naturalization as a servicemember and the process of legally bringing a non-U.S.-born spouse into the U.S. as an active duty servicemember. The Navy also has a series of webpages that address different aspects of the immigration process. 

Naturalization

Now that you’ve successfully applied for citizenship, what next? 

A well-kept secret is that U.S. servicemembers and their dependents are able to participate in naturalization ceremonies that take place on military bases. For the U.S. Navy, the Regional Legal Service Office organizes and liaises with USCIS for those servicemembers and dependents who wish to participate in an on-base ceremony. Ask the military helpline to connect you with local opportunities if you are connected to a service other than Navy.

Still have questions?

If you have questions, I cannot emphasize how important it is that you seek out a specialist immigration attorney — preferably one with experience working with immigrant military servicemembers or family members. Do not rely on second- or third-hand information to make decisions about your specific set of circumstances.

 
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