Thousands of immigrants were so eager to enlist in the U.S. military during the last two years, despite the strong odds that they could be sent to combat zones, that they signed a petition on Facebook asking the Pentagon to let them join.
Now they will have the chance. Late last month, the Pentagon reopened a program to recruit legal immigrants with special language and medical skills, which was active for a year in 2009 but was suspended in January 2010.
The program will enlist a total of 1,500 recruits each year for two years, mainly in the Army. But military officials said the yearlong pilot program brought an unusually well-educated and skilled cohort of immigrants into the armed services.
“Their qualifications were really stellar,” said Naomi Verdugo, assistant deputy for recruiting for the Army. “And we have been very pleased about how these folks have been performing.”
The program is open to immigrants on temporary visas, who otherwise would not be eligible to enlist. Its powerful lure is that it allows them to naturalize as U.S. citizens quickly, in most cases at the end of basic training, which lasts about 10 weeks. Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the program was intended to fill “some of our most critical readiness needs.” This time around, the Army is looking for dentists and surgeons, and for psychology professionals to help with the emotional strains soldiers have undergone in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Officials are also looking for native speakers of 44 languages.
Recruiting officers were quietly frustrated that Pentagon officials took more than two years to restart the program. The renewal became tangled in a broad security review after the shooting rampage in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, according to accounts from military officials. Background checks for the immigrants were scrutinized with added caution.
In renewing the program, military officials added a new layer of security screenings, Lainez said.
To make their case to the Pentagon, recruiting officers compiled dossiers on the first class of immigrants, of whom 943 out of 1,000 were in the Army. On average, immigrants who enlisted in the Army language program scored 17 points higher (on a scale of 99) than other applicants on an entrance test, said Capt. Carol Stahl, who manages the program for the Army.
The program – known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI – is not open to illegal immigrants.