A military recruitment program that grants accelerated citizenship to legal immigrants has ground to a halt after the Pentagon directed the armed services to make illegal immigrants eligible for the program, too.
The recently-passed omnibus spending bill urges the Defense secretary to allow the enlistment of immigrants who illegally entered the United States as children, often referred to as "Dreamers." The bill gives the secretary just 90 days to comply.
Meanwhile, thousands of highly skilled legal immigrants who were waiting to enlist will now wait months — maybe years — before they can join the military and fill crucial shortages.
Pentagon Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright first ordered the military services on Sept. 25 to make the program open to those who qualify for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA).
The creator of the recruitment program, retired Army Reserve Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, says the shift has created a logistical nightmare. She says her creation, the Military Accessions in the National Interest (MAVNI) program, has become clogged.
“Putting the ‘DACAs’ in the program — that is a huge nightmare,” said Stock, who is also an immigration lawyer in Alaska. “The program wasn’t set up to allow people like the ‘DACAs’ in. It was set up to weed them out and prevent them from getting in.”
“DACAs” is an alternative name for “Dreamers.”
Delving into the specifics, Stock said that MAVNI was created for legal immigrants with specialized healthcare training or critical language skills, and it required documents that would not be given to illegal immigrants.
Therefore, the program’s requirements must be changed to include documents that “Dreamers” might have, and retrain recruiters on the new requirements, Stock said.
The Army — the main beneficiary of the program — told The Hill on Nov. 21 it needed additional time to incorporate the changes but said it anticipated reopening the program to those previously eligible by “late November.” On Tuesday, an Army spokesman changed that to “the near future.”
Would-be applicants are getting impatient.
“The last time there was a hold on the program in 2010, the hold was for more than two years. People are afraid this might happen again,” said 23-year-old Vaneet Goyal, who has a master’s degree from North Carolina State University in industrial engineering and a minor in supply-chain management.
Goyal, a legal immigrant but noncitizen who works as an engineer in Georgia, applied for the MAVNI program in August in hopes of joining the Army to become a supply specialist. But he has been stuck waiting.
“This country has given me a lot of things, and I want to give it back in some way or the other,“ said Goyal, who speaks Punjabi, a critical language under MAVNI.
Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinFill the Eastern District of Virginia Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats struggle to gain steam on Biden spending plan MORE (D-Ill.) and Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) have been strong supporters for allowing illegal immigrants into the military.
However, some lawmakers are vehemently opposed to the move.
“I want them to get a green card through the normal process of legal immigration, not by giving amnesty to a bunch of people we really don’t know much about,” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainProgressives say go big and make life hard for GOP The Biden-Harris train wreck may have its savior: 2024 GOP nominee Donald Trump Kelly raises million in third quarter MORE (R-Ariz.), incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told The Hill on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Stock said, the military will suffer from not having the highly skilled applicants enter the original program. Many of those applicants fill high-demand jobs in the military, such as doctors, dentists, nurses, anesthesiologists and psychiatrists.
A high number of them with critical language skills serve with the Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets, who work with indigenous populations in countries all over the world.
“A lot of the MAVNIs were ending up in Special Forces, and so now that pipeline has dried up,” Stock said. “There hasn’t been any recruiting of MAVNI since Sept. 30.”
She also doubts whether the program would be able to recruit all people eligible under DACA. Those who are in the country illegally cannot be licensed healthcare workers, and most do not speak one of the critical languages, she said.
Stock said even after the new order, the program would still allow only 1,500 applicants a year even though it draws thousands more applicants.
Opening it up to those eligible for DACA could potentially create 400,000 new applicants who would not be eligible under the current criteria.
“It’s like a game of musical chairs but with a lot more people playing,” Stock said.
— This story was updated at 1:04 p.m.
Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story. It has been corrected.