Pentagon announces changes for immigrants entering the military

Soldiers with the Army’s 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) 25th Infantry Division at a deployment ceremony at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Sept. 8th, 2017 (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

On Friday, the Defense Department announced changes to military recruiting that will make it harder for legal immigrants to enlist and qualify for citizenship.

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The new policy effectively ends the expedited track to citizenship for green card holders who enter the military, eliminating the incentive many had to join. Another change is an end to the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program started under the Obama Administration in 2009. Margaret Stock is the founder of the now-suspended MAVNI.

“Its an immigrant recruitment program,” Stock said.

Stock is an Anchorage-based lawyer who practices immigration, citizenship and military law. Last year, she ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate as an Independent. She’s also a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a MacArthur fellow — the prestigious so-called “genius grant.”

The MAVNI program was intended to attract immigrants with high-value skills such as language and cultural proficiency that aid in military operations abroad. According to Stock, recruitment of foreign nationals has grown more restrictive since tighter green card standards were put in place in 2003. Friday’s policy change furthers that trend.

“It hurts our national security,” Stock said. “It means we’re not going to have enough people who are qualified to serve in our nation’s military. We need people who speak foreign languages and have cultural expertise, and can blend in with local populations. And now we’re not going to have that. So, it’s a bad day for national security.”

Stock said a number of new background screenings are being added for immigrant enlistees, on top of those already required for green card eligibility and to qualify for military service. This comes at a time when there’s a backlog for completing security clearances at the Office of Personnel Management, according to the Defense Department. Green card holders entering the military could wait up to a year for the clearance process to be finished and be eligible to start their service.

That means it is now faster for immigrants seeking citizenship to just remain civilians, Stock explained.

In its release, the Pentagon said the changes ensure higher security among prospective service members and potential citizens. According to Stephanie Miller, the Defense Department’s chief of accessions, the change will affect some current personnel who weren’t finished with security screenings when they began to serve. Certifications that counted towards citizenship for those individuals will be nullified.

A number of Alaskans stand to be affected by the change, according to Stock. Some immigrants who have lived in Anchorage have been among those to join the military through the MAVNI program. They include Specialist Susan Tanui, a native of Kenya and former All-American runner at UAA, who was the first-place female finisher in the Army’s 10-mile race in Washington, DC last weekend.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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