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Keeping our word

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The Pentagon is shamefully breaking its word to some non-citizens who joined the military for the purpose of gaining U.S. citizenship. A number of legal aliens who stepped forward to serve the United States are being denied the expedited citizen status they were promised.

The Pentagon initiated a program in 2009 to recruit non-citizens with skills considered to be vital to the national interest, including doctors, nurses, and persons with specific language expertise. The Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program started as a pilot program for up to 1,000 recruits and was expanded to 5,000 based on its success. It has been open to asylees, refugees and certain legal aliens. Service members recruited through the program become citizens upon completion of basic training.

The program was closed last December but service personnel who enlisted before that time have been left twisting in the wind. The Pentagon has asked the Homeland Security Department to stop processing their applications and has implied they might not receive their promised citizenship. This could result in about 1,000 service members being at risk of deportation. Can’t we do a better job of keeping our word to people who step forward to serve our country?

We have a long history of relying upon non-citizens for our national defense. Indeed, one of my ancestors came to America with French forces to fight in the Revolutionary War and was injured in the Battle of Charleston in 1780, according to family history.

My first duty assignment in the Army was as executive officer of a transportation battalion in Okinawa. The commanding officer was a German national who was serving to gain U.S. citizenship. One could hardly have imagined a more patriotic person than Captain Dietmar W. L. Zurell.

The Pentagon says that over 109,250 members of the armed services have become American citizens through their service. The Army has enlisted 10,400 persons through the MAVNI program since 2009.

The program has included some exceptional people, including a 2016 Olympic silver medalist, a 2012 Army Soldier of the Year, and a winner of the Marine Corps Marathon in 2012. About 30% of the individuals entering the armed forces through MAVNI have served in special operations units in foreign countries because of their language skills. This is a critical role, given the number of conflict areas around the world where U.S. forces are currently serving.

Although it seems to be short-sighted, the Pentagon has the right to terminate the MAVNI program. But, those who enlisted and have not yet received citizenship should get what they were promised. People who are willing to risk their lives to serve this country deserve honorable treatment.

A number of the MAVNI recruits who were caught in the pipeline have filed suit to force the government to honor its commitment to them. They should not have had to do so. Perhaps our Congressmen could help them get their citizenship.

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