Venkata: MAVNI program must continue.

Disbanding seven-year program providing immigrant naturalization in return for military service is cruel and unnecessary.

by Uma Venkata

In July 2002, after 9/11, U.S. President George W. Bush issued an executive order to expedite the naturalization of immigrants serving in the American armed forces in order to increase military power for the war on terror. Then in 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense operationalized the initiative by launching the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest recruitment program, or MAVNI, which oversees immigrant enlistment into the U.S. military. MAVNI increases American military capability in medical skills and, more notably, cultural and linguistic expertise in 44 foreign languages and their countries. MAVNI has so far sworn 10,400 immigrants into the U.S. armed forces. Around 1,000 people are waiting to join but have been stalled by a September 2016 memorandum from the Obama administration, which significantly increased the vetting requirements for MAVNI applicants. Though the September memorandum claimed to strengthen MAVNI, it effectively paused the whole operation – especially because in 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis applied more background requirements. Those 1,000 enlistees waiting to join will be in limbo for two years this October. 

But the stalling of the enlistees is not the greatest concern. In the last few weeks, the DOD has been quietly and unexpectedly dismissing more than 40 MAVNI enlistees with an “uncharacterized discharge,” a discharge that is neither dishonorable nor honorable. All of these enlistees had signed their contracts and taken the Army’s oath. Furthermore, a memorandum from within the DOD stated that officials are recommended to cancel the enlistment contracts of 1,800 recruits who are waiting to begin basic training and to cancel MAVNI altogether. 

Yes, there is a backlog in background screenings. But dismissing enlistees entirely and without reason is alarming, and the dismissed immigrants in the MAVNI program have been consciously prevented from pursuing their American citizenships. One reason may be that the DOD could be trying to disincentivize foreign nationals from pursuing American citizenship through military service, but it’s highly unlikely this is the only motive at play. Through MAVNI so far, fewer than 11,000 immigrants have been granted American citizenship, and in our nation of nearly 326 million, eleven thousand is a smattering. What’s more probable is the DOD intends to clear the ranks of foreign-born nationals from within the armed forces, which is being accomplished by disbanding MAVNI. This is nothing short of folly. It harms the immigrants who lend their blood, sweat and tears to our country through military service by denying them the citizenship they bargained for, as well as weakens our own military by restricting the cultural and linguistic fluency that MAVNI enlistees have been contributing in droves.

In the name of national security, almost anything can be done. It’s often quite difficult to argue against, because as civilians, we are not privy to our national security officers’ inner workings and concerns. But consider this. The MAVNI concept had been successful for seven years before its official launch. Since incorporated officially, it administered extensive background screening to every enlistee prior to deployment. As hard as I look, I can’t find a single instance of a security infraction from any MAVNI enlistee. What this means is that MAVNI should not go. There is no reason for the U.S. to pursue weakening our military and fail to honor contracts that it wrote itself by denying citizenship through the MAVNI program or canceling it. 

We are currently fighting wars in seven countries: Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Niger, Yemen and Libya.  Our military is strong, but especially considering the rhetoric of the party that is overseeing the MAVNI dismissals, there is no reason for it not to become stronger in order to remain in safe standing in our conflict zones. Otherwise we fail the immigrants, who could face the prospect of fighting against their homeland in the name of the United States. It’s the least we can do when those soldiers are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.