Immigrants who enlist in the military have high retention rates and bring language and medical skills considered vital to the nation’s success. So why do they make up less than 5 percent of the U.S. Armed Forces when they account for 13.4 percent of the population?
“Why the mismatch? It’s not because immigrants don’t want to join the military,”says Margaret Stock, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. “They’re highly motivated to join.”
Stock, an immigration lawyer in Anchorage, Alaska, and a former professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, led the creation of Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), an immigrant recruitment program designed to help address the nation’s military shortfall. Prior to MAVNI, the only non-citizens eligible for military service were those who already had permanent residency, a process that takes so many years, says Stock, that potential recruits would often age out of any interest in enlisting. The median age at which an immigrant receives a green card is 31. “That’s not a demographic that is likely to join the military,” Stock says.
MAVNI extended military eligibility to legal, temporary residents with specialized medical or language skills that are deemed to be in short supply in the military. After eight years of service, MAVNI recruits are granted U.S. citizenship. Adopted by the Department of Defense in 2008, MAVNI has rotated 10,400 troops into the military, mostly into the Army. MAVNI recruits have played a particularly outsized role in Special Operations Command, where they help train foreign militia and translators in hostile zones, and as cultural liaisons critical to the safety and success of U.S. forces.
“Without the contributions of immigrants, the military could not meet its recruiting goals and could not fill its need for foreign-language translators, interpreters, and cultural experts,” Stock wrote in a report on immigrants in the military after 9/11.
We don’t have enough people who speak foreign languages. You can’t perform operations against a foe if you can’t translate what they’re saying.
In the fall of 2017, however, the Department of Defense froze the program and Army recruiters cancelled hundreds of MAVNI enlistment contracts. “The magnitude of incompetence is beyond belief,” Stock told The Washington Post. “We have a war going on. We need these people.” Around the same time, the Army relaxed the standards for U.S.-born recruits in an attempt to meet recruitment goals, allowing Americans with a history of “self-mutilation,” bipolar disorder, depression and drug and alcohol abuse to apply for waivers.
“They’ve studied the issue extensively at the Pentagon, and they’ve found that it’s a better bang for the taxpayer’s buck to recruit an immigrant, because an immigrant is much less likely to drop out of training, they’re more likely to graduate from basic training, they’re more likely to re-enlist, and they’re more likely to be still serving after 24 months,” Stock says. Meanwhile, “the military is short of troops. They’re having a very hard time trying to find qualified native-born citizens to meet their needs. If they could recruit qualified immigrants, they wouldn’t have a troop shortage right now.”
Until the end of the Vietnam War, almost any immigrant physically present in the United States was eligible to join the U.S. military. In the 1840s, immigrants represented a third of regular soldiers in the Army. Today, more than 65,000 – or 5 percent – of the U.S. active-duty military recruits serving as soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen were born in another country.
“Since the Army was founded, in 1775, immigrants have been vital to the Army and other military services,” Stock says. “Unfortunately, because the legal immigration system is broken today, it’s very difficult for immigrants to join the Army,” a situation that poses a national security threat. “We don’t have enough people who speak foreign languages. You can’t perform operations against a foe if you can’t translate what they’re saying. At least not effectively.”
In 1992, after graduating from Harvard law School, Stock returned home to Alaska, where she’d previously completed a three-year tour of active duty. She did not intend to practice immigration law, but her new employer asked her to take on a pro bono deportation case, which she naively thought would be easy, taking maybe “10 to 20 hours of work max”; 400 hours later, Stock won her case and, she says, “found the ultimate challenge for myself as a lawyer.”
Stock believes immigration reform starts with education. “If you talk to the average citizen, they think there are millions of immigrants out there who are refusing to comply with immigration laws because they just don’t want to comply with them,” she says. “The reality is that our immigration laws are extremely complicated, arbitrary, irrational, and almost impossible for anyone to comply with unless the person has an expert attorney standing by their side.”
Working within that immigration system, MAVNI represented a small effort to resume a long and successful tradition in this country of allowing immigrants to serve their new country. Let’s not forget, Stock says, that Thomas Paine, the Founding Father who inspired American Patriots with his pamphlet “Common sense,” was an immigrant from England who didn’t land in the American Colonies until 1774.
“We’re a nation of immigrants,” Stock says. “We’ve been relying on immigrants since 1775.”