Laura Rojas was the perfect Coast Guard recruit. Born in Colombia, Rojas had a green card granting her conditional resident status, and she’d applied for a 10-year renewal so she could join the Coast Guard.
She was fully qualified for enlistment, and excited for boot camp. She planned to become a boatswain’s mate like her dad, Chief Mark Ward, stationed on Coast Guard Cutter Griesser.
Here’s the catch
According to Coast Guard policy, Rojas couldn’t step on the Cape May bus without a green card covering her entire four-year enlistment. But she could only renew her green card one year at a time due to the backlog at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
“We were the only service denying enlistment to people who did not have their green cards renewed for the full-length of their enlistment,” said LT Simon Sekitoleko, who works in Recruiting Command.
This was a nearly impossible feat, for a few reasons:
Applicants couldn’t start working with a Coast Guard recruiter until they had a permanent resident card valid for their entire enlistment contract.
Most green cards only get renewed for 12 months – not enough for even a two-year enlistment contract. (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is mostly issuing short-term renewals for now, due to backlog.)
The math simply didn’t add up. And it was costing us prospective applicants.
“The policy was a drag for our recruiters, as they sometimes invested countless hours preparing applicants who hoped they’d get their renewal soon,” said Sekitoleko. “Fully qualified applicants got tired of waiting around, so they’d switch to the Army, Navy and Air Force – services that could take people with any length of time on their green card.”
So – what exactly just changed?
Now, you can enlist even if your green card is scheduled to expire during your enlistment contract, provided it is valid for at least 180 days from your date of enlistment.
That’s the seamless process Sekitoleko experienced when joining the military. He’s from Uganda and remembers being naturalized after years of honorable service with the Coast Guard. As a part of the Coast Guard Recruiting Command, he’s excited to tell green card holders they can easily join the Coast Guard if they qualify.
Who can we thank for fixing this loophole?
LT Sekitoleko met LT Nicholas Sach last year, when Sach - a reservist from PSU 305 – was on active duty for operational support (ADOS) with the Recruiting Incident Management Team (IMT.) They share similar backgrounds: LT Sach was born in Kenya and LT Sekitoleko was born in Uganda; both were born to non-US citizens. LT Sach had enlisted in the Air Force Reserve in 2006 and “seamlessly” earned his citizenship in less than 7 months after initial training, much earlier than with traditional naturalization. Both Lieutenants received Coast Guard commissions several years after earning their citizenship. And they knew the Coast Guard could address its recruiting crisis by reaching parity with DoD policy and bringing in green card holders.
Their leadership in the Personnel Service Center and Recruiting Command gave them full support to fix the issue, so the lieutenants drafted an updated policy modeled on current DoD policy.
You can read the policy details here, but here’s the main thing to remember: You can enlist even if your green card is scheduled to expire during your enlistment contract.
Action encouraged: Use this policy change to earn $1,000
Sekitoleko encourages Coast Guard members, civilians and dependents to spread the word to legal permanent residents.
First, he says, be ready to explain the new policy: “Legal residents can now talk to a recruiter regardless of when their green card is set to expire. If you’re a good fit for the Coast Guard, we’ll train you for a job with great benefits and job security, and help you become a naturalized U.S. citizen.”
Next, start talking with your neighbors, people you meet at the grocery store, small-business owners in your community. “If they have an accent, just ask them what they do and whether they’d consider the Coast Guard as a career.”
Don’t be afraid to ask people where they’re from, and about their goals in life. That’s how Sekitoleko has helped four great folks from Uganda enlist in the Coast Guard. “I want other immigrants to have the same opportunities I’ve had.”
It starts with trust, he says. If you’re part of an international community, start there and talk with people in their native language. Share stories about your Coast Guard service, and the opportunities it gives you.
If you don’t share a language, find another way to connect – maybe by giving them a recruiting flier, like this one created for Spanish-language speakers.
“You might get them to open up, and discover they’re green card holders,” Sekitoleko said. “That’s when you will send them to a recruiter. When they go to boot camp, you’ll get $1,000 from the STAR program.”
But did Laura Rojas ever make it to Cape May?
Seaman Recruit Rojas was so determined to enlist, that she started the recruitment process while waiting – and waiting – and waiting – for her 10-year green card. It will come, she told herself, while completing paperwork and taking the ASVAB at Recruiting Office San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The San Juan recruiting team recognized a promising applicant. They didn’t want to turn her away due solely to a policy that didn’t make sense. Although Rojas just kept getting 12-month renewals, Chief Dale Emmanuel’s team decided to help her get through the process. They, too, hoped for a miracle.
Rojas became fully qualified, and was ready to ship to boot camp right away. But her 10-year green card still hadn’t arrived. They’d hit a brick wall.
But the Coast Guard is a family. Remember that Rojas’s father serves on Coast Guard Cutter Griesser? His commanding officer at the time, Lt. Cmdr. Catherine Gillen, wanted to help. She personally contacted Coast Guard Recruiting Command, requesting an exception to policy on behalf of Laura Rojas.
Recruiting Command and the Recruiting IMT made it happen. Rojas shipped to boot camp with only 11 months left on her green card.
As you read this, Rojas is part of recruit company TANGO-203 at U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May. After graduating June 2, she plans to become a U.S. citizen and a boatswain’s mate.
In the News