Immigration Reform and the Military’s MAVNI Program

In light of President Trump’s promise in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address to provide a “path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants who were brought here by their parents at a young age” in exchange for new restrictions on immigration, it’s time to revisit an issue I wrote about last summer.

In May, the Department of Defense decided to halt the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, also known as MAVNI. This program, in place since the Bush administration, allowed non-citizens with certain linguistic or medical skills to enlist in the military in exchange for a fast-track to citizenship. The DOD memo leaked last June, and speculation at the time was that this policy would mean that the military would cancel enlistment contracts for many of the MAVNI recruits.

Looking back, it’s interesting that news of the MAVNI memo appeared in print the day after the president nominated retired Rear Adm. Anthony Kurta, who had been the acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, to be the principal deputy under secretary in that office. Kurta was the official who approved the memo.

There hasn’t been much noise around this issue since then. I certainly missed many of the developments, so it’s worth reviewing.

In the Daily Intel entry from last August, I mentioned that lawsuits, such as the one filed by several MAVNI recruits likely to be affected by ending the policy, have a fairly good track record of getting the Pentagon to change course before the cases get to trial. That was the case here, although it was a rough road getting there.

On the one hand, The Washington Post’s Alex Horton (himself an Ira War veteran) reported in September that Army recruiters had “abruptly canceled enlistment contracts for hundreds of foreign-born military recruits.” Horton reported that the Pentagon, for its part, “denied ordering a mass cancellation of immigrant recruit contracts.” Nevertheless, several recruits reported that their contracts were canceled long before their time had expired.

Then in October, the DOD published formal guidance for both lawful permanent resident and MAVNI recruits, that allowed the MAVNI program to continue, but required background checks, and either 180 days of active duty or one year of reserve service, to be completed before the recruit could receive a certification of honorable service that would expedite their citizenship application.

At the time, Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters that he believed in saving MAVNI, “if it can be saved.”

Two weeks later, a Federal judge issued an injunction to prevent the Pentagon from implementing that policy and withholding paperwork for MAVNI recruits, whose lawsuit continues.

The MAVNI program does deserve to be saved. It is just about the only way the military can get native speakers of languages like Pashto and Dari into the ranks. Those who have already signed enlistment contracts deserve the chance to enlist, but that doesn’t mean they should be allowed to begin training before the military is convinced they do not pose a security risk. A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that passed Congress in December gives the Pentagon the authority to extend a MAVNI recruit’s delayed entry by a year to facilitate the process.

Unless the DOD can show a real risk of enemy infiltration by way of the MAVNI program, or show us the numbers of people who failed the screenings, the program should continue, and we should, as I said in August, fulfill the bargain we made with those people who were willing to risk their lives in exchange for living them out in freedom.