By Celia Feldman, Immigration Paralegal
Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)'s Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) Program has allowed immigrants with critical medical and language skills to serve in the U.S. military in exchange for expedited citizenship.
While an immigrant must normally hold Permanent Residence or U.S. citizenship to serve in the military, MAVNI was open to immigrants without permanent legal status, including DACA recipients and nonimmigrant visa holders, who met certain requirements such as medical skills or unique language skills that filled an area of need in one or more branches of the military. In September of 2016, however, the DOD suspended the MAVNI program. This left 1,800 MAVNI applicants awaiting entry into basic training in legal limbo, and has prevented potentially thousands of other eligible immigrants from serving their adopted country.
Non-citizen immigrants have a long history of U.S. military service. The After establishing military bases in the Philippines in the late 1940s, the U.S. military began recruiting Filipinos. In 1950, Congress passed the Lodge Act, permitting non-citizen immigrants from Eastern Europe to begin serving in the military. According to the DOD, non-citizens have participated in military service in the U.S. since as early as the Revolutionary War.
Immigrants serve critical roles in the U.S. military, and MAVNI recruits are no exception. MAVNI recruits include nurses and doctors, and they speak languages as diverse as Arabic, Chinese, Polish and Swahili (among many others). These skills enable them to protect our service members, as well as adequately communicate with citizens of active conflict zones around the world. In all cases, a MAVNI recruit is expected to serve at least three to four years in active duty. After that, s/he can apply for U.S. citizenship during basic training without needing to first become a Permanent Resident.
Even though the MANVI program has been suspended since 2016, some officials within the Trump administration have recently become fearful that even with the new security checks proposed, the MAVNI program could not be overhauled in such a way to prevent espionage and other threats. In May of 2017, a DOD official signed a memo which proposed the termination of the program altogether, arguing that increased screening put too much strain on the DOD's budget. These officials also made it clear that they viewed some immigrant service members (both MAVNI recruits and naturalized U.S. citizens) as potential threats to national security, assigning MAVNI recruits to "threat level tiers" and proposing that over the 4,000 active-duty troops who are naturalized U.S. citizens be subjected to additional "enhanced screening."
In addition to recommending the complete termination of the MANVI program, the May 2017 memo also proposed terminating the enlistment contracts of the 1,800 MAVNI recruits who are presently awaiting entry into basic training. At least 1,000 of these 1,800 recruits are no longer in legal status, as their visas or other temporary legal statuses have expired; they may now be at risk of deportation if the military chooses to cancel their enlistment contracts.
Despite the controversy, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated that he supports restarting the MAVNI program. Grossman Law understands and appreciates the historic contributions of foreign nationals to our armed forces. While the integrity and security of our defense system must be a high priority, taking steps such as ending the MAVNI program and subjecting naturalized citizens to additional vetting must be done in a nonpoliticized and balanced manner, through non-discriminatory methods, which protect individual rights as well as the well being of our armed forces.