WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that the Pentagon is taking steps to save its program enabling foreign-born recruits to earn an expedited path to U.S. citizenship.

“We are taking the steps obviously to save the program, if it can be saved,” Mattis told reporters Friday. “If it can, you do due diligence for it to make sure what you are bringing in is what you think you are bringing in.”

In a memo dated Oct. 13, the Pentagon announced it was making two changes to the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, program, to include increased background checks and extended service requirements.

Since 2009, more than 10,000 recruits have entered the military through the MAVNI program. However, no new recruits have been brought in since 2016, when the Pentagon assessed it did not have proper safeguards in place against potential insider threats.

Supporters of the MAVNI program say it allows the military to recruit immigrants with vital skills such as foreign language proficiency or high-demand medical training. But critics have said the program did not adequately screen potential applicants and left the military vulnerable.

“We could not continue what we’d been doing without an espionage potential,” Mattis said of the previous weaknesses found in the program.

Under the changes, recruits to either Guard, reserve or active-duty forces would no longer be shipped to basic training before a full security background investigation is favorably completed. Previously, recruits could ship as long as the background investigation had been initiated.

A second change extends the length of time a recruit must serve before receiving a certificate of honorable service, which is one of the requirements for getting expedited citizenship. The change lengthens the time in service to 180 consecutive days of active duty or one year in the reserves. Previously eligibility for the certificate began after one day of service, DOD said in a statement accompanying the memo.

The Pentagon began increasing its security screening of potential recruits last year, and earlier this summer, the Pentagon cancelled contracts of recruits who were waiting for months for the department to greenlight them to go to basic training.

This summer the Pentagon also initiated a security review of the program and the two changes announced Friday are a part of that review, said Pentagon spokesman Laura Ochoa.

The security review of MAVNI is ongoing, Ochoa said.

Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.

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