The Pentagon made a surprise announcement on Thursday to let undocumented immigrants serve in the United States military.
The new rules will expand an existing program allowing recruiters to target foreign nationals with high-demand skills. Known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI — will be open to immigrants without a proper visa if they came to the U.S. with their parents before age 16. More specifically, they must be approved under a 2012 Obama administration policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
After entering military service, foreigners are eligible for expedited U.S. citizenship. Since 2001, more than 92,000 foreign-born service members have become citizens while serving in uniform.
The MAVNI program began in 2008 and remains a pilot program. DoD notified Congress on Thursday that the program, which was due to expire at the end of this fiscal year, will be extended for another two years and will for the first time include DACA-status immigrants.
The immigrants will only make the cut, however, if they successfully fill out a 127-page form that asks whether they have been terrorists, hold advanced degrees, and can speak Cebuano, Igbo, Yoruba, and a host of other rare languages. What’s more, they’ll be competing for only 1,500 open slots against thousands of legal immigrants with non-permanent visas who have already applied under the same criteria.
“This is honestly throwing crumbs at us,” Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, deputy manager director of the Dreamers advocacy group United We Dream.
He believes the Pentagon’s announcement was perhaps intended as a symbol, a gesture indicating that President Barack Obama is trying to help illegal immigrants whose plight elicits the sympathy of valuable Latino voters.
If that’s the case, the gesture backfired.
Republicans who lean towards giving DACA Dreamers a pathway to US citizenship in exchange for putting their lives at risk for Uncle Sam were also dismissive. According to Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives, President Barack Obama has twisted MAVNI.
“It’s shameful that the Obama administration is using a law meant to protect the national security interests of the United States as a means to accomplish its political agenda,” Goodlatte said.
The Petagon Officials say it’s unclear how many of those might be unlawful DACA status immigrants as opposed to others who are also eligible for military service under MAVNI, including those with legal, nonpermanent visas such as students or tourists.
Estimates suggest between 1.2 million and 2.1 million children, teenagers and young adults in the U.S. have no legal immigration status but meet the criteria for the DACA program. Those targeted by recruiters under the MAVNI program likely will be immigrants with language skills critical to national security, such as Arabic, Chinese, Pashto or Persian.
“We’re just not sure how many within that existing population of DACA would have the linguistic skills to qualify,” said one defense official familiar with the policy change. “These are kids who entered the country at a fairly young age and have basically grown up in the United States, so the limit of their language talents would probably be the language that they received at home.”
The military services are not required to accept recruits under MAVNI. In recent years, the Army has been the only service to accept a significant number of recruits under the program. The Air Force has accepted only a few and the Navy and Marine Corps have not sought MAVNI recruits in recent years.
Marc Rosenblum of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute was a little more generous. The Pentagon program has such narrow criteria because it needs specialists, he said. Maybe the Marines might need an Uzbek thoracic surgeon who wants to be a jarhead.
“It’s not a significant number from an immigration perspective, but it might be a significant number from the perspective of military intelligence.”
The move might also set the stage for an eventual path toward citizenship for some illegal immigrants.