President Donald Trump frequently praises himself for how much he supports the military, but his administration is quietly dismantling a valuable program that enables immigrants to earn citizenship while serving the United States in uniform.
The U.S. Army has abruptly discharged at least 40 individuals who enlisted through a recruitment program for noncitizens in recent months, often without explanation, according to the Associated Press. The total number of dismissals is not known because Pentagon officials won’t discuss the matter, citing pending litigation by some of the recruits who were let go.
At risk is a program started by President George W. Bush to bolster enlistments after the 9/11 attacks. He expedited the naturalization process for noncitizen recruits, a move that has enabled close to 110,000 people to gain citizenship through military service since 2001. Among them was Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, an immigrant from Guatemala who was posthumously awarded citizenship after he was killed in Iraq.
In 2009, the Obama administration formalized the efforts as the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, with the focus on recruiting noncitizens with medical skills or critical foreign language skills. The program was later expanded to include children in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, an addition that drew criticism from congressional Republicans.
In the fall of 2016, the Obama administration froze the military accessions program, citing national security concerns, but renewed it as a backlog of background checks was cleared. The Pentagon extended the program a year, but the Trump administration let it expire amid reports that new “extreme vetting” procedures had rendered background checks too costly to conduct. Meanwhile, about 1,000 noncitizens who applied for the program await word about whether they’ll be let in.
Although the specific program in jeopardy is only two decades old, immigrants have been part of the U.S. military since the nation’s beginnings and played critical roles in every conflict, as well as the Cold War when Eastern Europeans were recruited. “Immigrants have been serving in the Army since 1775,” says Margaret Stock, a retired Army Reserve lieutenant who helped start the modern program. “We wouldn’t have won the revolution without immigrants. And we’re not going to win the global war on terrorism today without immigrants.”
Stock blames the program’s troubles on “a fear of foreigners” at the Pentagon. Given the Trump administration’s animus toward immigration, it’s difficult to dismiss concerns that the program is falling prey to something other than legitimate security interests.
Extensive research supports continuation of the program. The RAND Corp., a think tank frequently used by the military, concluded that noncitizen recruits are often high achievers with high re-enlistment rates. An Army study concluded that the outreach efforts to immigrants “greatly expand the recruiting market” and provide “needed strategic depth in manpower and key skills vital to the national interest.”
If there are genuine security concerns about the recruitment effort, they must be addressed. But letting the program die without a full explanation to the American public — or the recruits being dismissed — is unacceptable. People who’ve volunteered to put their lives on the line in exchange for U.S. citizenship deserve better.
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