Opinion

Commentary: Ending foreign-born recruiting program would be a security threat

Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff. 


The Pentagon is considering ending the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, program, according to press reports. Doing so would be immoral — not only because of the harm it would do to many brave men and women in uniform, but because it would undermine national security.

The MAVNI program was established in 2008 to enable the armed forces to recruit certain lawfully present immigrants with language and medical skills that were not available in the regular recruiting pool. In return for volunteering to join the military, these men and women were promised that their path to citizenship would be expedited. In some cases, the path to citizenship provided through military enlistment was the only viable path.

As a result of MAVNI, more than 10,000 immigrants have joined the Army. Reportedly, the Pentagon wants to end the program because it claims that it does not have the resources necessary to do the enhanced screening or vetting necessary to ensure that these men and women do not pose a security risk to the U.S.

These apparent security fears are a red herring: There is no evidence that foreign-born soldiers pose more of a risk to our security than those volunteers born in the U.S. As retired Army Lt. Col. Margaret Stock — who had a major role in implementing MAVNI — points out, extreme vetting should be done if there is a specific reason for concern, but not as a general rule for people in a certain class who were born in another country or may have relatives living or working there.

Because of the policy of performing extreme vetting, about 1,800 foreign-born recruits who have enlisted but have been placed in the delayed entry pool and are waiting to go to basic training will have their contracts cancelled. Since about 1,000 of these immigrant volunteers are not U.S. citizens, they are subject to deportation because their visas have expired or were canceled while they were awaiting orders for basic training.

Another 4,000 foreign-born troops already on active duty, most of whom are naturalized citizens, will need to undergo enhanced screening. A potential casualty of this policy could be Spc. Paul Chelimo, a track-and-field athlete who enlisted in the Army as part of the MAVNI program — and won a silver medal for Team USA in the 2016 Rio Olympics. He hopes to compete for the U.S. in Tokyo in 2020, if he can pass the extreme vetting.

During his campaign and since taking office, President Trump has consistently supported a policy of mass deportation, but has at times made an exception for those in the service. In September 2016, then-candidate Trump — speaking at an MSNBC veterans' issues forum — said he would even allow an unauthorized immigrant serving in the military to stay in the U.S. In April of this year, a DoD official said President Trump will carry out a longstanding policy that allows immigrants to serve, and continue to give those who do so a pathway to citizenship.

Canceling the contracts of 1,800 immigrants subjects the majority of these brave men and women to deportation in spite of the fact that they volunteered to serve this country. And jeopardizing the careers of another 4,000 troops for no good reason is deeply unfair.

Ending the MAVNI program also would jeopardize our security: It would result in the discharge of several thousand men and women who boast higher re-enlistment rates and better performance than the average recruit. The Army's 2012 Soldier of the Year enlisted via the MAVNI program.

Canceling MAVNI would prevent several thousand highly qualified people from enlisting in the future, send the wrong signal to the 70,000 immigrants currently serving, and discourage many foreign-born people from volunteering. Recruiting immigrants is absolutely critical: By 2025, 15 percent of the U.S. population will be foreign-born, compared with 5 percent in 1970.

If the president does not act to protect these MAVNI volunteers, then it will be Congress' imperative to do so. 

Lawrence Korb

Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo

Lawrence Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan.

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