July 10, 2015

MAVNI Connects Immigrants to Military Service—and Citizenship

In January 2008, I was a private immigration attorney who also held a commission as an Army Reserve Military Police officer. I had just been asked to obtain Pentagon approval for a new military immigrant recruiting project about which I had briefed Army leaders the previous fall. At the time, I lived with my family in Alaska and was told I would have to work on the project in Virginia. I would be put on temporary active duty service, and “you’ll get off active duty when the project has been approved at the Pentagon.”

I was mildly worried. Although I had never worked at the Pentagon, I’d heard rumors from my fellow officers. Popularly called “the Puzzle Palace” by many, the building has a reputation for bureaucracy. Wondering how long it would take to get a project approved, I sought the wise counsel of a former service secretary and lawyer who had worked there for years.

After I explained the project, my friend looked at me gravely. He wanted me to be realistic. “This is a brilliant idea,” he said. “But the Pentagon crushes great ideas. I doubt that you’ll be able to get this through. But if you do, it will realistically take you about five years.”

I was shaken by this estimate. Five years of part-time active duty? Separated from my family and unable to practice law for five years? I sought counsel from my spouse, who had never served in the military but who was a crack litigator used to steering complex cases through the judicial system. When I explained that my task would be complete when I obtained the Secretary of the Army’s signature on a memo, my husband replied, “Somebody’s signature on a memo? That should take about two weeks.”

Armed with two estimates, I headed to Washington—and less than a year later, in November 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates signed a Department of Defense memo, implementing the program now known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI).

America has long benefitted from the contributions of immigrants who have come to our shores. Many Americans are unaware, however, that immigrants have contributed to the U.S. military since 1775. Immigrants have served in all of America’s wars and earned their citizenship as a result. But after September 11, 2001, that history had been forgotten.

In fact, an increasingly restrictive legal immigration system had made it harder for immigrants to join the military. By the 1990s, the green card had become a requirement for enlistment—although no green card was required for wartime military naturalization. This led to the odd situation whereby immigrants without green cards could still be drafted—but there has been no draft since the 1970s, and most immigrants are today barred from enlisting voluntarily. As a result, immigrant enlistments were at their lowest levels ever, and remain so today. In World War I, immigrants comprised nearly 20 percent of Army recruits; after 9/11, their representation fell below 5 percent. And yet, in a difficult recruiting environment and with key shortages of foreign language speakers and other skilled personnel, the military needs immigrants like never before.

Following authorization of the MAVNI program, the military began to recruit more immigrants—and I continued to work on the project until my military retirement date in 2010. The MAVNI project had many notable successes: MAVNI recruit Saral Shrestha became the 2012 U.S. Army Soldier of the Year, and other MAVNI soldiers won accolades from their commanders and fellow soldiers. Eventually, several thousand immigrants who served in the military earned their citizenship through the MAVNI program.

Steering MAVNI through the Pentagon bureaucracy and implementing the program after its approval was the most professionally rewarding and creative accomplishment I have had as an attorney and U.S. Army Reserve officer.