Immigrant soldiers fill a critical skills gap.
The Pentagon is reportedly set to end a military program providing an accelerated citizenship process for immigrant recruits with specialized skills. But some military experts are cautioning against the government’s decision.
Since 2008, the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program has recruited highly qualified immigrants with language or medical skills to serve in both active duty and reserve assignments. Roughly 10,400 immigrants have joined the Army as a result of MAVNI. Now, the Pentagon says that national security concerns are making it too costly to conduct enhanced screening to vet these immigrants. Officials are also considering canceling the enlistment contracts for about 1,000 recruits, who would then face deportation.
“The Department of Defense is reviewing the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) pilot program due to potential security risks associated with the program,” Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael told CNN last week. “Due to pending litigation, we are unable to provide any additional information at this time.”
Margaret Stock, a nationally recognized immigration law expert and a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve, spearheaded the MAVNI program. She isn’t taking the Pentagon’s decision lightly.
There isn’t “any individualized suspicion” about any of the immigrants already in the program, and Stock insisted that immigrants are thoroughly vetted.
“They’re all people who have already enlisted in the military so they’ve met all the background checks to get into the military, which are substantial,” Stock told ThinkProgress in a phone interview last week. “They’re all people who are legal immigrants and individually approved by the DHS [U.S. Department of Homeland Security] to enlist in the military after DHS reviewed all their records.”
“If they did this kind of vetting on U.S. citizens that enter the military, they wouldn’t have any recruits.”
“If they did this kind of vetting on U.S. citizens that enter the military, they wouldn’t have any recruits left because it’s probably 70 percent of Americans who would fail this vetting,” Stock added.
The MAVNI vetting process includes interviews with past employers, workers, and a 10-year review of the person’s finances, educational and professional activities, relationships, and residences, KTUU Channel 2 News reported.
Currently, legal immigrants, like green card holders, without specialized skills can serve in the military. Legal non-immigrants from the three Pacific Island nations of Palau, Micronesia, and the Republic of Marshall Islands, who spend “zero time in America,” are also able to enlist. According to a VOA News report, Palauans and Samoans serve in the military at high rates compared to some other states and U.S. territories.
For Stock, it makes little sense that legal non-immigrants can enlist, yet the Pentagon wants to throw out highly qualified people who have spent much of their lives in the United States and understand its values and customs.
What’s more, ending current enlistment contracts for foreign-born military recruits in the country could put their legal status in limbo as they wait to enter into military training programs. At least 18 foreign-born soldiers have joined a legal challenge against the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) alleging discriminatory practices.
One soldier, who is now a naturalized citizen through the MAVNI program, received a DOD memo saying that MAVNI soldiers can’t apply to “officer-inducing programs” that would allow him to study at various universities. Another naturalized citizen who went through the MAVNI program was initially encouraged to apply for officer candidate school. She was later told that she would no longer receive a security clearance because of the Pentagon’s decision.
Stock also worries that denying highly-skilled immigrants from contributing to the military will create future headaches.
For one thing, the military has a retention problem. Anywhere between 20 and 50 percent of applicants are unable to meet the recruitment weight standards. And recruiting goals of new applicants have annually fallen despite large enlistment bonus packages worth upwards of $40,000. Retaining current, skilled soldiers has also been a problem. Back in January, the army offered a $10,000 bonus for current soldiers to carry out an additional one-year contract.
The military also not only “can’t find enough people to fill the ranks right now,” Stock said, but it also can’t find medical professionals and language specialists.
“We’re talking about 10,000 people who speak foreign languages that are in short supply and have high medical skills that we need,” Stock explained.
Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, there has been a shift in focus on recruiting intelligence professionals who can understand critical regional languages like Pashto or Arabic. The MAVNI program has helped find recruits who speak those languages.
“The army’s already experiencing a huge shortage of medical professionals because they can’t find enough native-born Americans willing to serve in the military who are U.S. licensed health care professionals,” Stock said. “And Special Operations Command is now experiencing a shortage of people who speak foreign languages. There simply aren’t enough Americans who speak foreign languages fluently who are willing to join the military and can meet the enlistment standards.”
“That’s just the reality.”
Ending military program for qualified immigrants could hurt national security was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.