POLITICO | A popular military enlistment program for immigrants with specialized skills is now stuck in bureaucratic limbo — after the Pentagon announced last month it would begin allowing some young immigrants without legal status into the program.
Army officials confirmed Thursday that the program, called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, has been suspended while the service tries to finalize screening procedures for the immigrants who want to enlist.
That means no applications have been accepted since earlier this month — leaving would-be Army recruits in flux as the Army sorts through the complications created by the Pentagon’s decision to allow beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals directive into the program.
“It’s a major bureaucratic screw-up by the Obama administration,” Margaret Stock, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who first came up with the MAVNI program, said in an interview.
Immigration advocates on and off Capitol Hill had lobbied the Pentagon to allow young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children — commonly known as Dreamers — to join the military. Congress briefly mulled including a measure to do that in the annual defense authorization bill earlier this year, but that legislation, pushed by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), blew up in the face of conservative opposition.
Instead, the Pentagon announced last month it would begin allowing some young immigrants shielded from deportations through DACA — the 2012 Obama administration directive — into the military but only through the specialized MAVNI program. Because of the skills required to enlist through MAVNI, such as a medical background or fluency in a particular language, it was highly unlikely that many DACA recipients would be able to join, experts said.
Even a change that only affects a small group of immigrants has created a bureaucratic headache.
Vaneet Goyal, 23, moved to the United States from India in August 2012 to attend graduate school at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He graduated with his master’s degree in industrial engineering in May and began taking preliminary steps to join the military through the MAVNI program.
But Goyal, who speaks Punjabi, was told by a recruiter and through an official Facebook page for Army translators and interpreters that MAVNI is on hold. Now he’s working at a company in Georgia until the MAVNI application process reopens.
“It’s been very frustrating for me,” said Goyal, who started a petition on the White House website last week that urges Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to reopen the MAVNI program “immediately.”
An Army spokesman, Wayne Hall, said the Army anticipates MAVNI will reopen by late November to immigrants who would have qualified before the Pentagon changed its policy to include DACA beneficiaries.
“From the Army’s standpoint, the MAVNI Program is currently on hold while Army officials sort out final details on screening MAVNI candidates,” Hall said in an email. “Procedures to enlist DACAs require additional coordination (not limited to security screening) which is ongoing at this time.”
A defense official said it’s not yet clear whether DACA-approved immigrants would be able to apply by late November.
One powerful lawmaker pushing the Pentagon to allow young undocumented immigrants into the military was Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has sponsored legislation for more than a decade to give Dreamers legal status and was a member of the Senate Gang of Eight that wrote the comprehensive reform bill last year. Durbin also chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees funding for the Pentagon.
“Our office has spoken with DOD and confirmed that the program has been put on hold,” Durbin spokesman Ben Marter said. “Sen. Durbin is disappointed, and we are looking into the matter further.”