Today’s U.S. military is facing a personnel deficit that is affecting our nation’s readiness and threatening our national security. But if our leaders are willing to act, there’s an obvious solution to this problem: immigrants.
Last year, the military failed to meet its recruiting goals, even though at least one branch, the Army, was offering a record $50,000 signing bonus to anyone willing to commit to a tour of six years. Part of the problem is that, like other employers, the armed services are competing for candidates in the midst of a labor shortage. They also, however, face a fundamental demographic challenge: The total U.S. population is growing at its slowest rate in history.
On top of that, there’s the quality-candidate issue. Increasingly, Americans who do apply are rejected. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even if they wanted to join, 71 percent of young people cannot meet military requirements. One in four is overweight. Others either fail to meet the education requirements necessary to serve in a high-tech 21st-century military or have mental health challenges or a drug abuse or criminal record.
But a key reason the military can’t meet its recruiting goals is our nation’s problem with immigration.
The U.S. population is now 13.5 percent foreign born, but foreign-born individuals make up less than 4 percent of the military. Thousands of qualified, U.S.-educated potential recruits cannot sign up. That’s because the Defense Department requires a green card — lawful permanent residence — for enlistment. But getting a green card these days is a herculean task that is beyond the reach of many otherwise lawful and qualified immigrants.
The average wait for a green card for nationals of some countries is upward of 15 years. By the time immigrants get a green card, they are often too old to serve in the military. In addition, the most common ways in which people obtain green cards are through marriage or civilian employer sponsorship. Those who benefit from these routes are not the people most likely to be looking to join the military. Others, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and other dreamers, are not eligible for a green card at all.
Under President George W. Bush, I piloted an idea called the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program. The idea was to fast-track the path to military service and, ultimately, to citizenship for lawful immigrants with skills the U.S. military needed. These immigrants did not need a green card, but were required to possess such skills as foreign-language proficiency or U.S. medical licenses and to be willing to serve for eight years.
As the New York Times reported, “The program’s success stories include Paul Chelimo, a native of Kenya who won a silver medal for the United States in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro; Saral Shrestha, a Nepalese national, who was named the United States Army soldier of the year; and Dr. Marco Ladino, originally from Colombia, who works at the VA hospital in Miami.”
Despite the MAVNI program’s success, its fate has been subject to the political winds of the moment.
In 2009, the program was temporarily shut down during the Obama administration after Army major Nidal Hasan killed 13 people in a mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas. The tragedy sparked a xenophobic and anti-immigrant backlash and brought the MAVNI program to a halt — which was strange not only because Hasan was a native American born in Arlington, Va., but also because three of his victims were immigrants.
The MAVNI program was eventually reinstated, but then paused again in 2016 due to questionable “security concerns,” putting thousands of military recruits, who had relinquished their prior legal status upon entering the program, at risk of deportation. MAVNI was then permanently halted under the Trump administration.
Programs such as MAVNI are necessary to make up for the declining number and quality of American recruits. And there is a further and broader solution: Our lawmakers could boldly address the need for reforms across the U.S. immigration system, from the asylum process to refugee vetting to legalizing agricultural workers and dreamers, to make it easier for immigrants to get green cards.
The demographic challenges and declining number of eligible recruits is a national security threat from within our own borders at a time of global instability, a domestic labor shortage and multiple crises facing the usual pool of younger military recruits. Our leaders must act now with the urgency that this demographic threat demands.