BEDFORD — It was supposed to be simple: serve in the military, become an American citizen.
When Hiren Korat, now a Littleton resident, enlisted in the reserves in 2016, a recruiter told him he could be a naturalized citizen in about three months. Instead, Korat waited three years after a new federal rule changed conditions of the program, and officials stopped processing these citizenship applications. Korat sued, and forced the government to review his citizenship application.
On Friday, in a dim conference room in a government office building in Bedford, Koran swore an oath to bear true faith and allegiance to the United States, and became an American citizen.
Korat was born in India, but has been living legally in the United States for more than 10 years, attending college and dental school here. He was working as a dentist in Texas when he decided to join the military.
A program called MAVNI, or Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, offered citizenship in exchange for military service for immigrants with language and medical skills tied to military needs. As a dentist, Korat fit the bill.
He felt called to serve the country that has become his home, Korat said, and the opportunity to become a naturalized citizen was enticing. In June 2016, he enlisted in the Army Reserves Select Reserve—the first group to deploy in emergencies—and served in a medical support unit based in Houston. He applied for citizenship in July 2017 and hoped to become a citizen by the end of the year so that he could become a commissioned officer and serve as a military dentist.
The way the MAVNI program was designed to work, Korat would report for service with his unit, an Army representative from the unit would fill out a form acknowledging Korat’s “honorable service for purposes of naturalization.” The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would then fast-track Korat’s citizenship application.
But a rule change made in September 2016 called for stricter background checks on MAVNI applicants. The Department of Defense put a moratorium on new citizenship applications as they rolled out the new rule.
Korat’s case stalled.
Though he had passed a background check required to join the military, the additional background check branded him a “moderate” security risk, for purported “financial, loyalty and foreign ties.”
His mother had been a local politician in India, retired since 2012, according to Korat’s lawsuit, and he was in debt — though his attorneys note he has never missed a payment.
According to a complaint filed by his attorneys, this is the type of background check someone has to pass to get a Top Secret security clearance, a much higher level of clearance than military recruits usually have. As a dentist, the complaint pointed out, Korat likely would not have had any security clearance, much less a high-level one.
Korat waited. He asked members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation to inquire about his application. Eventually, he contacted an immigration attorney, who got in touch with the ACLU of New Hampshire, which helped him file a suit in January to demand the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services review his case. Korat was granted a citizenship interview and was naturalized Friday.
As Andrea Rogers, field office director of the Manchester citizenship office, finished administering the oath, she handed certificates and small American flags to Korat and another man who became a citizen in the quiet Friday ceremony.
“It’s really just that easy,” Rogers said to the two men.
Korat is working at a community health center in Littleton, but said he is eager to return to military life. Now that he is an American citizen, he can be promoted from an enlisted specialist to a commissioned officer and serve as a dentist.
The ACLU has filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia on behalf of other people in Korat’s situation, “United States soldiers who deserve much more,” as the complaint calls them.
In May, a federal judge ordered the 2016 rule overturned, writing it was “arbitrary and capricious.” The Department of Defense is still reviewing the individual cases, according to status updates provided to the court.
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, said she thought the class action suit was about making sure the United States keeps its promises to people like Korat.
“Specialist Korat will make an excellent U.S. citizen,” she said.