DoD: “Policy Changes to Lawful Permanent Residents and the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) Pilot Program”

by Joseph McKeown

Earlier this month the Department of Defense (DoD) announced key changes to its policies regarding screening of Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) and qualifying service for the purposes of military naturalization. The DoD states that they made the changes after “lessons learned” from the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) Pilot Program—a program devised as a way for legal noncitizens to obtain expedited citizenship when they join the US military and provide critical and in-demand skills, including medical and language skills. After criticism of the security screening for MAVNI recruits, along with threats that the program would be discontinued, the DoD says that, while expedited US citizenship achieved through military service can be valuable, it is in the “national interest to ensure that all current and prospective service members complete security and suitability screening prior to naturalization.”

To that end, effective October 13, 2017, all LPR recruits must complete a background investigation and receive a favorable military security suitability determination (MSSD) prior to initial military training and entry in the active, reserve, or guard service. This is a change from the original policy, which allowed for LPR recruits to enter initial military training as long as their background investigation had been initiated and they had cleared other entry screening requirements. 

Additionally, also effective October 13, foreign nationals entering the active, reserve, or guard service must complete all security and screening requirements, receive a favorable MSSD, complete the initial military training requirements, and complete at least 180 consecutive days of active duty service, or a minimum of one year of service in the reserve in order to receive a certification of honorable service for the purposes of expedited naturalization. This is a change from the previous policy, which granted the certification after “one day of service.”

Service members who are currently serving must complete all security and suitability screening requirements prior to a certification of honorable service, and those who have already received a “certification of honorable service prior to the completion of all security and suitability screening requirements will have that certification recalled and decertified until, at a minimum, screening requirements are complete." The changes will affect approximately 10,000 immigrants currently in the program, the majority of them in the Army.

Rollout of these new rules resulted in confusion, even before they went into effect. In September, although the Pentagon denies any involvement or an order to do so, Army recruiters canceled hundreds of enlistment contracts for foreign-born recruits ostensible for security screening reasons. Critics say these changes may deter enlistment from those that possess crucial medical and language skills needed throughout the various branches of the military. Under current law, permanent residents are permitted to enlist in the military, and according to Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer who helped create the MAVNI Pilot Program, the changes threaten to violate treaties with the independent island nations of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau given those citizens also have a legal right to enlist in the armed forces.

Since the 9/11 attacks, over 100,000 immigrants have gained citizenship through military service. Immigrants make up approximately thirteen percent of the overall US population, and many, like Stock, fear that turning immigrants away will not only “dry up a reliable recruiting pool,” but will force the armed forces to recruit those less qualified. Despite the new DoD instructions for LPR recruits, many recruiters and recruits remain confused. One Army Reserve recruit who is a Green Card holder from Haiti tells the Washington Post that his training date was suspended without any information as to when he can expect to resume service. “We had a contract and now they’re not going to respect the terms. It’s confusing. There is no explanation. Even the recruiter doesn’t know what is happening.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis claims the military must prevent “espionage potential” among immigrant recruits, but the Pentagon has not released any examples of legitimate threats from current or past immigrant recruits to support this claim. Stock says: “It looks like we’re now afraid of foreigners in the military. If you’re going to be deployed in more than 100 countries to fight a global war, you can’t be afraid of foreigners.”