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Pentagon eyes specialized program to enlist undocumented immigrants

Eight members of the United States military became naturalized citizens aboard the USS Pinckney as part of San Francisco's annual Fleet Week celebration in October 2010.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is reviewing a program that allows qualified noncitizens to enlist in the military, and officials say they’ll consider expanding it to cover some who now live in the United States illegally.

With legislative efforts stalled that would allow undocumented foreign nationals seeking citizenship to enlist in the military, the Pentagon and the White House are looking at alternatives, the Defense Department’s head of personnel said Monday at a Congressional hearing in Chicago.

“We look forward to the time when we’ll be able to grant more individuals the opportunity to serve this great nation,” said Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

The Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, has been used by the services to enlist nearly 3,000 foreign nationals with vital language and medical skills since 2009. The program currently excludes undocumented immigrants, but federal law gives the Secretary of Defense wide leeway in accepting military members deemed “vital to the national interest.”

Wright said DOD believes in “moving forward” on defining U.S. vital interests. Allowing undocumented foreign nationals raised in the United States to enlist would provide a larger pool of qualified applicants, as well as more diversity within DOD, she said.

“But we think it’s very important to take a look at the MAVNI program that was established a while ago and see what that ‘vital to the national interest’ means,” Wright said at the hearing organized by Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

Durbin for years has pushed immigration reform that would, among other things, allow children brought to the United States illegally to gain citizenship through college education or military service.

Immigration reform legislation has passed the Senate but is stalled in the House of Representatives. And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Friday he wouldn’t allow debate on a bill filed by a fellow Republican, Rep. Jeff Denham of California, to allow children brought illegally into the country to enlist.

Some House Republicans have bashed such efforts, saying they reward lawlessness.

“Our nation’s military is full of dedicated men and women and to disrespect them by rewarding illegal aliens with citizenship is an insult,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said in a recent statement.

While undocumented immigrants are normally barred by federal law from the military, the law also allows the secretary of defense to make exceptions vital to the national interest, Durbin said.

“If the House Republicans refuse to move immigration reform,” Durbin said, “the Defense Department should use its authority under current law to authorize the enlistment of dreamers,” as young immigrants raised in the United States are often called.

The MAVNI program, which officials say has been most heavily used by the Army during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is set to expire in September but might be extended.

“The Department is in the process of reviewing ... program criteria,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said Tuesday in an email. “A final decision has not yet been made.”

Currently, Wright said, the MAVNI program exists to capture specific skills and language abilities — and the languages don’t include Spanish, common in the military and spoken by a large portion of the population who would be affected by immigration reform.

The Pentagon and the White House are “joined at the hip” on the issue, and agree that immigration reform is of vital importance, she said.

About 30,000 foreign nationals currently serve in the active-duty U.S. military as well as the Guard and reserve components, according to the Pentagon. For immigrants who hold legal residency, military service is a path to citizenship, with nearly 93,000 military members taking the U.S. citizenship oath since 2002.

carroll.chris@stripes.com
Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

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