Opinion

Opinion

Pentagon, don't cancel citizenship program for immigrants with special skills

Posted July 14

Facing lawsuits and questions over adequate security vetting, the Pentagon is considering the cancellation of a program designed to fast-track citizenship for certain foreigners with special skills.

"The Department of Defense is reviewing the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) pilot program due to potential security risks associated with the program," Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael said in an email. "Due to pending litigation, we are unable to provide any additional information at this time."

But MAVNI has been a great success, and it should continue.

Begun in 2009, the program allows visa holders, asylum seekers and refugees to bypass the green card process if they possess unique, in-demand skills otherwise in short supply.

According to retired Lt. Colonel Margaret Stock, the program's founder, more than 10,000 people have been recruited under the program. They serve all over the world and have contributed to operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Asia-Pacific hotspots. And their number includes a US Olympic silver medalist, a Secret Service officer, a nuclear energy fellow at MIT and the US Army's 2012 Soldier of the Year.

Some are medical specialists: thoracic surgeons, prosthodontists, orthopedic surgeons, and entomologists, to name a few.

Some speak critical languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Somali and Pashto, which remain vital to our ability to operate effectively around the world.

Should the military cancel MAVNI, it would deprive itself of this talent.

Moreover, according to reporting in the Washington Post, it could leave as many as 1,800 applicants out in the cold and subject to deportation.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia last week implored Defense Secretary James Mattis not to cancel the program and threatened a legislative backlash.

"Military recruits in the MAVNI program should not have to wonder whether the United States will honor the contract they signed," he wrote in a letter to Mattis. "If we fail to uphold the contracts we have made with MAVNI applicants, this will not only have a significantly deleterious effect on recruiting, it will also be met with a strong, swift Congressional reaction."

To be sure, Pentagon concerns over security are valid. The continued threat posed by ever-elusive and self-radicalized terrorists must be taken seriously. And if military leaders feel the MAVNI vetting process as currently conducted does not adequately address that or other risks, they are perfectly within their rights -- indeed, it is their responsibility -- to ensure it does so.

That said, the vetting process for MAVNI recruits was already stringent. Lt. Col. Stock tells me that before entering the United States and shipping out to boot camp, each applicant undergoes extensive screening by multiple federal agencies, to include the State Department, Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. And there are, in some cases, additional vetting turnstiles through which these individuals must pass as they progress through advanced and more specialized training.

Then there is the issue of how the Army, in particular, is employing MAVNI recruits. According to NPR's reporting, some are not being assigned to jobs that utilize the special skills for which they were recruited.

All of these are good reasons to review the health of the program. There is nothing wrong with making sure it is managed properly. But the answer shouldn't be to cancel it, regardless of the administrative burden.

We're not only a nation of immigrants. We're an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, a Marine Corps and a Coast Guard of immigrants. And we are better for it.

My military career was spent in the company of men and women from all over this country and many other countries. Their diverse backgrounds, cultures, experiences and talent made the unit stronger, more pliable. They made us better.

I'll give you an example -- Christmas, 2006, in Fallujah, Iraq. I was there with Admiral Mike Mullen, my boss at the time and the Navy's top officer.

It was a morale trip, a chance for the admiral to visit with and thank sailors and Marines for their service, especially over the holidays.

Mullen was particularly interested in visiting the field hospital, where he could check in on some of our wounded troops and express his gratitude for the skill and dedication of military doctors, nurses and caregivers.

It was busy when we arrived. There had just been a firefight nearby, and the doctors were trying desperately to save the life of an Iraqi insurgent who had been seriously wounded by our Marines.

We stayed out of the way, of course -- indeed, we almost turned and left. It wouldn't do to distract them at a time like this. But in a very short time, the crisis had passed. The enemy fighter was out of danger, his life spared by American medical professionals.

One of those professionals was an immigrant from Pakistan, Dr. Saleem Khan. Khan emerged from the operating room weary, but satisfied. One of his sneakers squished when he walked, so drenched it was with blood. His shoulders slumped a little, but he was smiling ever so slightly.

He'd done his job.

Khan was on his fifth -- yes, fifth -- tour in Iraq at that point. He volunteered for each of them. He would go on to complete another three combat deployments, including one to Afghanistan, and would be awarded the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit for his battlefield performance.

I'll never forget what he told me that day: "I don't want anyone to ever say that, as an immigrant, I did not pay my dues."

Every time I think about Khan, I feel small -- insignificant, really. I was born here, and I didn't do half as much as he did to repay the country we both love.

To be sure, Khan raised his right hand and became a sailor long before the MAVNI program started. He enlisted back in 1987. But in a sense, that program was inspired by people just like him: foreign-born patriots possessing the sort of unique and vital skills we need to defend this great country.

I caught up with Khan this week. He told me Pentagon leaders should think carefully before canceling MAVNI.

"I think it's a wonderful program," he said. "These are people who need to serve, to have a sense of belonging, a sense of comradeship, to have a sense of a stake in this country. And the military needs their skills. So it's a win-win for everybody."

He's right.

Security concerns -- whatever they may be -- are always important to address. Military leaders have a fundamental responsibility to make sure the people who take the oath are fully committed to honoring it and that those individuals have suitable assignments and career paths available to them.

But it would be self-defeating to freeze out from the ranks individuals who, like Khan, can render unique service to our military and who desperately want to "pay their dues" to a nation they desperately want to call home.

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