In this, my third and final installment devoted to immigrants and the military, I want to draw attention to a unique recruitment program known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI).
In short, MAVNI allows certain non-citizens legally present in the United States to join the military and thereby gain eligibility for U.S. citizenship without first having to go through the lengthy process of obtaining permanent residence.
How did MAVNI come about?
Anchorage, Alaska-based immigration attorney Margaret Stock was instrumental in pushing this program forward. With strong connections to the military as a professor at West Point and 28 years of service in the Military Police Corps, Ms. Stock convinced Department of Defense officials to develop this program with the basic, common sense argument that it’s a solution to two issues of major concern to the United States: immigration and national security.
Stock points out that immigration law is typically used as a means for keeping “bad” people out of the country but argues that it should be more about allowing the right people in; [one of the avenues being] U.S. citizenship through military service. She notes, furthermore, that the history of the United States is a history of immigrant military service.
The Department of Defense and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services back her up, noting that non-citizen military service is a long one, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War and running up through the War of 1812, Civil War, and both World Wars.
In the 1840s, almost half of the Army’s enlistees were foreign born as were 20 percent of the 1.5 million service members in the Union Army during the Civil War. In addition, more than 660,000 military veterans naturalized between the years 1862 and 2000; non-citizen Eastern Europeans were allowed to enlist from 1950 to 1959 through the Lodge Act; and, in the late 1940s, the Navy began recruiting Filipino nationals after the Military Bases Agreement of 1947 allowed U.S. military bases in the Philippines.
So, what exactly is MAVNI and how does it work? As noted before, the program allows certain non-citizens holding legal status in the United States to obtain U.S. citizenship without going through the lengthy permanent residence process. Legal status means that applicants must be asylees, refugees, recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or hold any of the following nonimmigrant visas: E, F, H, I, J, K, L, M, O, P, Q, R, S, T, TC, TD, TN, U or V.
The program is restricted, however, to individuals who are either healthcare professionals or experts in certain key languages with associated cultural backgrounds. Applicants in the healthcare professional recruit category must be licensed in their specialty healthcare profession as well as demonstrate a proficiency in English and commitment to at least three years of active duty or six years in the Selected Reserve.
Applicants in the language recruit category must demonstrate proficiency in their native language and commit to at least four years of active duty. (The Department of Defense recently announced, however, that up to 100 language-based applicants may be accepted into the Army Reserve). The critical languages for those with specific language and culture backgrounds are, among others, Bengali, Burmese, Cambodian-Khmer, Cebuano, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Lao, Malay, Malayalam, Moro, Nepalese, Singhalese, Tagalog, Tamil, and Thai.
Finally, healthcare professional and language recruits must also pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test and be legally present in the United States at the time of enlistment for a minimum of two years without a single absence from the country of more than 90 days.
Regardless of an interest in military service, one should be aware that certain individuals are required to register with the Selective Service; specifically, all male U.S. citizens and male immigrants residing in the United States who are 18 through 25 years of age. Even more specifically, permanent residents, special agricultural workers, refugees, parolees, asylees, undocumented (out-of-status) immigrants, and dual national U.S. citizens must register with the Selective Service. Lawful non-immigrant visa holders are not required to register, however, if they maintained that status through the age of 25.
For those immigrants holding an interest in military service and expedited U.S. citizenship processing, the MAVNI recruiting program presents a great opportunity to avoid the years-long wait associated with the traditional permanent residence track. And, most importantly, MAVNI reflects our country’s gratitude for their military service.
R. Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has been practicing immigration law exclusively for more than 25 years with an emphasis on political asylum, family and marriage-based immigration, naturalization, removal defense, and appeals as well as H-1B and religious worker visas.