Back in 2009, the Department of Defense instituted a new program called MAVNI: Military Accessions Vital to National Interest. These accessions were not technological or financial. Rather, they were actual human resources, potential military recruits who possessed special linguistic or medical skills. These recruits came from outside the United States, primarily from India, China, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In exchange for their skills, MAVNI recruits were offered an expedited path to U.S. citizenship. The recruits had to be in the U.S. legally, whether as refugees, asylum-seekers, visa holders, immigrants with Temporary Protected Status, or DACA recipients. Medical recruits had to possess expertise in a field in which the armed forces experienced a shortage; language experts had to demonstrate proficiency in at least one of 50 languages, from Amharic to Yoruba. All MAVNI recruits needed to be proficient in English and had to enlist for a period of three to four years, depending on the program. Recruits who demonstrated the necessary expertise and met other requirements could then apply for citizenship without first obtaining a green card. The program seemed to offer the ideal balance of supply and demand: talented immigrants wanted citizenship, and the armed forces wanted their skills. However, in the past several months, this program has been suspended and recruits have been quietly and summarily discharged, creating uncertainty and controversy.
To understand the current controversy, it’s helpful to understand some of the concerns that have beset the program almost from the beginning. In 2016, driven by concerns about terrorism and national security, the Obama administration called for more extensive background checks for MAVNI recruits. While no MAVNI recruit has been charged with terrorism, the MAVNI program virtually ground to a halt under the weight of these new requirements. Recruits who enlisted under the program were supposed to start basic training within one year of agreeing to enter the program. However, the additional background checks could not always be completed within that limited time. Even when the period for entering basic training was extended to three years, the checks posed a problem since obtaining accurate records from the recruits’ countries of origin was sometimes difficult.
The obstacles to the MAVNI program have only grown. In October 2017, the Trump administration reiterated the need for additional background checks. Recently, reports have begun to emerge that about 40 recruits who had been accepted into the program – and who, in some cases, had begun serving – were notified that they were being discharged. Some recruits were told that they had failed crucial background checks while others say that they were given no reason. The future remains uncertain for about 1,000 additional recruits. Some officials have expressed concerns about whether MAVNI recruits had ties to, or could be manipulated by, foreign intelligence, but the program’s founder, retired Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, believes that the vetting process is too extensive and too methodical for any such lapses too occur. While the program’s danger to national security may be overstated, the danger that its end poses to potential recruits is very real. Being discharged from the program puts these recruits at risk. To enlist in the armed services, recruits must swear an oath of loyalty to the U.S. If the MAVNI recruits are returned to their countries of origin, they may be targeted for mistreatment or even arrested and imprisoned. MAVNI recruits may petition for asylum, but those petitions may add years to an already lengthy process.
The Department of Defense maintains that the problem is bureaucracy, not bigotry, that they are simply performing the kinds of background checks that the program should have demanded all along. But whether these actions stem from a desire to be thorough or from a fear of immigrants, the fate of the MAVNI program highlights both the U.S.’s growing concerns about national security and the precariousness of immigrants’ rights. Even extraordinary skills and willingness to engage in military service are not enough to insulate prospective immigrants.
Kathleen Davies is a Staff Writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.