Immigrant Veterans in U.S.

By Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova


Approximately 511,000 foreign-born veterans of the U.S. armed forces resided in the United States in 2016, accounting for 3 percent of the 18.8 million veterans nationwide. Of that number, 1.5 million were U.S. born with a parent who was an immigrant. While the share of veterans who are foreign born is much lower than the immigrant share of the overall population (14 percent), veterans with an immigrant parent composed a larger share than the first generation (8 percent). Together, approximately 2 million veterans (11 percent of all veterans) were from an immigrant background.

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 all 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."

Immigrants have always served in the U.S. armed forces. In the past, their presence was particularly high: 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, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau (the 2016 Annual Social and Economic Supplement [ASEC] of the Current Population Survey [CPS] and the 2014 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.

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