Immigration reform: An Army recruitment opportunity

Immigration reform: An Army recruitment opportunity
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As secretary of the Army, my job was to recruit, train, equip, and look after the morale and welfare of over one million U.S. soldiers and their families. In each of these efforts, I sought to create a force that embraced inclusivity and diversity. I believed the more the Army looks like society, the stronger it becomes.
 
Right now, Congress is contemplating the passage of the Dream Act, which would establish protections and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers — young people brought to the country before they were 16 years old who have lived in the United States continuously for the past decade, and yet currently have no path to legal immigration.

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If passed, this legislation would not only provide temporary work permits and protection from deportation for millions of young people, it would also be a tremendous opportunity for the U.S. Army to expand its pool of high-quality recruits — tapping into exactly the kind of people that make our military the greatest in the world. 


 
Over the past two decades, the Army has maintained a high operational tempo. The missions in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, and the current threat landscape has created an urgent demand for personnel in Europe, Asia, and Africa. As a result, Congress directed the Army to increase the number of active-duty soldiers from 476,000 to 550,000 by the end of fiscal 2018. 
 
Quickly adding additional high-quality recruits is no easy task. The U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC) is struggling to find candidates who meet the Army’s requirements. Last year, USAREC Commander Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow acknowledged as much, stating that "the biggest challenge right now is the fact that only 3 in 10 can actually meet the requirements to actually join the military," because they fail due to health, educational background, or other issues.
 
As a result, USAREC has been forced to lower its recruiting standards in hopes of reaching its goal of 80,000 new soldiers. In fiscal 2016, 1.6 percent of Army recruits were Category Four candidates, who scored in the bottom third of standard military exams. The following fiscal year, the Army increased the acceptance rate to 1.9 percent. While these percentages remain below the 4 percent cap, they are moving in the wrong direction.
 
The reduction in recruiting standards comes at the same time the Pentagon has decided to suspend the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, program, which offered an expedited pathway to citizenship for immigrants with highly sought after medical and language skills. The MAVNI program had been a success for the Army: Sergeant Saral Shreshta, the 2012 Soldier of the Year, and Specialist Paul Chelimo, an Olympic Silver Medalist at the 2016 Rio games, earned their citizenship through the program. 
 
Given the wide breadth of challenges facing our nation, the U.S. needs a skilled, diverse military force with high levels of integrity that can adapt to today’s emerging threats. The MAVNI program was an important element of creating that force and the Army has reaped the benefit of hundreds of Dreamers currently serving in its ranks. The Dream Act is an opportunity for the Army to expand access to this recruiting pool. 
 
According to a recent report, over the next few years, “the net growth in the U.S. population of 18- to 29-year-olds — the segment of the population most likely to enlist — will come entirely from immigrants and the children of immigrants.” If the U.S. Army is going to be successful in recruiting qualified 18- to 29-year-olds, it must tap into this pool of potential recruits. And on the retention front, the facts are even more compelling: another study found that non-citizen “recruits are far more likely to remain in the military through their first terms of enlistment than recruits who are U.S. citizens.”
 
Resourcing our Armed Forces takes many forms. Of course we need to make sure that our military is adequately funded and has a stable budget that supports all missions. Dreamers also represent an important resource to ensure our military has access to mission critical skills. Pitting these goals against each other is unnecessary and shortsighted.
 
Our nation’s military is stronger when it reflects the diversity it aims to defend. Our nation’s Armed Forces should not be forced to pass over those who are qualified and willing to serve. The Dream Act is an opportunity for Congress to advance this nation’s national security by expanding recruitment pools, maintaining a high-quality force, and creating opportunities for thousands of young people for whom the United States of America has always been home. It should be passed as soon as possible.

Eric Fanning was the 22nd secretary of the Army serving during the Obama administration.