The Immigration Squeeze on Military Recruits

The legal fight to keep the MAVNI program

Immigrants living in the U.S. are experiencing a new level of uncertainty as policy changes ripple through the programs. In a number of cases, people residing legally in this country are facing a complete reversal on assurances they were given previous, leaving their status in a state of limbo.

One such program is the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), which was designed to leverage needed language skills or specialized medical training of legal permanent residents in the U.S. and provide them a fast track to citizenship in exchange for military service. In addition, certain qualified individuals—including asylees, refugees, and those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), as well as people granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—could obtain a green card and citizenship through the program.

The program contains a number of specific requirements in order to qualify. Health care professionals must fill a specialty need, speak English proficiently, and commit to three years of active military duty. Language experts must have fluency in an enumerated language and culture, commit to four years of active military duty, and meet all enlistment eligibility criteria. Under either category, applicants are required to undergo extensive background checks, security screening, employment authorization and all other requirements for U.S. citizenship. Over 10,000 recruits have participated in MAVNI since its inception in 2009.

Nonetheless, the program was suspended in late 2016 based on security concerns. In September of 2017, the program cancelled a number of enlistment contracts with those already signed on to serve. Since that time, well over 1,000 recruits to the program have been put on hold, “timing out” on their allowance period to begin boot camp, with many facing deportation if their status is not revived. In addition, many MAVNI service members who have already been cleared and begun serving have been subject to additional scrutiny and have had their citizenship process placed on hold.

Atlanta immigration attorney Elizabeth Garvish says she’s concerned about her clients who participated. “They’ve put up all these barriers, where people are now unable to get their background check and go to boot camp and start their career. It’s just a huge mess. They’ve basically ended this program, where we were in need of special language skills, highly specialized scientific and medical skills in the military, and it was something that was beneficial to the country and attractive to immigrants. But that’s been pretty much scrapped.”

Two class actions are currently underway representing MAVNI recruits against the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). According to the most recent orders in those cases, class members may not have their status revoked, but litigation is ongoing and there is no final order.

“What we tell people is to have a plan in place, because it seems that now they’ll deport anyone; there’s no discretion,” says Garvish. “They used prosecutorial discretion previously, but now, anyone will get deported.”

If you or someone you know has signed up for MAVNI and are now facing complications to your naturalization process, it is critical that you talk to an experienced immigration attorney right away. 

For more information on this area of law, see our immigration overview.

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