Foreign-born troops fight hard for America
When news emerged that immigrants who had enlisted in the U.S. Army through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program were being discharged because their background checks had not been completed or because they have relatives abroad, the public outcry was immediate. Given the broader anti-immigrant sentiment that has overtaken our national rhetoric, many immediately saw the news as a sign that this sentiment was spilling over into our military recruitment policy.
The good news, however, is that those discharges have since been halted while the process itself is reviewed. Court records indicate that a few recruits posed a potential threat, which in turn prompted Army officials to consider how they could preserve the benefits of the program while ensuring that those who mean us harm don’t slip through the cracks.
It’s a worthwhile endeavor, and the Army should be applauded for taking it so seriously. Ensuring that our military remains open to foreign-born recruits who desire to serve is crucial. First, it honors the commitment that hundreds of thousands of foreign-born servicemen and women have made since the Revolutionary War, when immigrants from France, Poland, Ireland, Prussia and other nations risked their lives to help our country gain its independence. This tradition has carried on through all of our country’s wars. Immigrants have fought alongside U.S. citizens in theaters around the world, including on American soil during our own Civil War.
Second, while all of our men and women in uniform display unparalleled commitment to our country, many of those who have grown up in less free and less prosperous societies appreciate what the U.S. stands for much more than those of us who were born here. While working with refugees and other immigrants over the past five years at World Relief, I’ve met dozens of young men and women who have enlisted or tried to enlist in the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy. They have many motivations for joining the service, but they share a primary motivation: to repay the security, freedom and opportunity that their new home country has provided to them. What many of us take for granted, they are willing to give their lives for.
My own grandfather — who came to the U.S. from Austria as a young boy — eagerly showed up to an Army enlistment office during World War II to serve his new home country and defend his old one from the Nazis. He was turned away for medical reasons, however, and having to sit on the sidelines haunted him. Like many foreign-born residents, he desperately wanted to serve the nation that had welcomed him.
Finally, immigrants are vital to the success of our military in today’s wars. When I enlisted in the Army 18X Special Forces Recruit program in 2013, I was looking forward to putting to use the language and cross-cultural skills I had acquired while living and working abroad. But my skills paled in comparison to those of the tens of thousands of foreign-born servicemembers currently on active duty. As wars become increasingly irregular and battles are fought by winning the hearts and minds of civilians, a global perspective, foreign-language skills and the ability to communicate with people of other cultures should be considered assets, not liabilities. Immigrants make our military stronger.
President George W. Bush recognized this when, in 2002, he signed an executive order to expedite the naturalization of non-citizens who had served on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001. This order laid the groundwork for the MAVNI program, which — seven years later — was put into place to attract foreign-born residents who had critical medical and/or language skills that the military urgently needed.
Among the 200 infantry and Special Forces recruits I trained alongside at Fort Benning, Ga., were soldiers who had been born in Sudan, Jamaica, Egypt, Mexico, Ukraine and several other countries. Sure, they had accents, and some were not citizens yet, but when we were out on the shooting range or running our training exercises, we were all Americans. And we were preparing to fight, live and die together as Americans.
I was injured during basic training and never made it to my unit. Eight surgeries later, I spend much of my time in a physical therapy clinic in the suburbs of Chicago, thinking of my fellow soldiers — citizen and immigrant alike — who are deployed around the world, serving our country and risking the ultimate sacrifice. They have done much more to earn the title of U.S. citizen than I will ever be able to do.
Protecting our nation’s security is a complicated endeavor. And if there are particular individuals who pose a threat to our country, they should certainly be prevented from standing alongside the men and women who serve honorably. But if we want to maintain a globally relevant fighting force and honor some of our most enduring and cherished national values, we must ensure that anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiment does not seep into the very institution that is designed to defend and protect those values.
In his farewell address, President Ronald Reagan concluded by articulating what he envisioned when he described America as a “shining city upon a hill.” Here is how he defined it: “[I]n my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
Let us ensure that our country’s doors remain open to those who would fight and die for our city on a hill.
Tim Kustusch is the partnership manager at World Relief DuPage/Aurora in Illinois and was previously a member of WRDA’s Immigrant Legal Services team.