Leaving Some Behind: Pentagon Provides Narrow Enlistment Route For Some DREAMers

DREAMers ask Congress to allow them to join the army in October 2013. CREDIT: ESTHER Y. LEE
DREAMers ask Congress to allow them to join the army in October 2013. CREDIT: ESTHER Y. LEE

Pentagon officials announced in an email last week that it would allow some undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children to enlist in the military through a limited program that recruits immigrants with critical language and culture skills, the Military Times first reported. The Department of Defense policy change builds on promised, but delayed, executive action that could potentially help some undocumented immigrants remain permanently in the country.

Developed in 2008, the program known as the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), expands on a recruitment program for non-citizens with high-demand skills, like rare foreign language expertise or specialized health care training, to beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a 2012 executive action which has granted temporary deportation reprieve and work authorization to nearly 600,000 immigrants. Those undocumented immigrants, colloquially known as DREAMers, were previously ineligible for recruitment. Since its inception, the MAVNI program — which has an annual limit of 1,500 recruits, has generally been used by recruiters to target non-citizens who have high-priority language skills useful in the Middle East, like Arabic, Pashto, and Farsi. In previous iterations of the MAVNI program, accepted recruits can be naturalized ten weeks after they graduate from basic training.

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Aside from the annual cap, a defense official admitted to Military Times that there could be some shortcomings to the program. “We’re just not sure how many within that existing population of DACA would have the linguistic skills to qualify,” the official said. “These are kids who entered the country at a fairly young age and have basically grown up in the United States, so the limit of their language talents would probably be the language that they received at home.”

During a press conference on Friday, Cesar Vargas, a prominent advocate who has pressed Congress to allow undocumented immigrants like himself to serve in the military, noted that “DREAMers come from different parts of the world and that kind of diversity can contribute to the military… We shouldn’t leave other DREAMers behind. They should be able to serve the country they call home.”

Margaret Stock, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in U.S. Army Reserve and current lawyer stated that the program could potentially extend to “a dozen DACA recipients,” since the majority of beneficiaries hail from Spanish-speaking countries. Spanish is a language that isn’t considered critical based on previous iterations of the MAVNI program. She also said that the program would be limited to immigrants who have held DACA for two years and have already renewed their DACA applications. She added that individuals may be hesitant to apply for the program since they would have to report the names of their relatives — undocumented and otherwise — during the background investigation.

The Pentagon previously approved the plan in May, but the White House asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to hold off on the policy until the end of August to give Congress more time to work on permanent immigration legislation.