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Posted on February 17, 2009
U.S. military to recruit temporary visa holders with offer of citizenship
By Julia Preston
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American military will begin recruiting skilled immigrants who are living in the United States with temporary visas, offering them the chance to become U.S. citizens in as little as six months.
Immigrants who are permanent residents, with documents commonly known as green cards, have long been eligible to enlist. But the new effort, for the first time since the Vietnam War, will open the armed forces to temporary immigrants if they have lived in the United States for a minimum of two years, according to military officials familiar with the plan.
Recruiters expect that the temporary immigrants will have more education, foreign language skills and professional expertise than many Americans who enlist, helping the military to fill shortages in medical care, language interpretation and field intelligence analysis.
“The American Army finds itself in a lot of different countries where cultural awareness is critical,” said Lieutenant General Benjamin Freakley, the top recruitment officer for the army, which is leading the pilot program. “There will be some very talented folks in this group.”
The program will begin small – limited to 1,000 enlistees nationwide in its first year, most for the army and some for other branches. If the pilot program succeeds as Pentagon officials anticipate, it will expand for all branches of the military. For the army, it could eventually provide as many as 14,000 volunteers a year, or about one in six recruits.
About 8,000 permanent immigrants with green cards join the armed forces annually, the Pentagon reports, and about 29,000 foreign-born people currently serving are not U.S. citizens.
Although the Pentagon has had wartime authority to recruit immigrants since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, military officials have moved cautiously to lay the legal groundwork for the temporary immigrant program to avoid controversy within the ranks and among veterans over the prospect of large numbers of immigrants in the armed forces.
A preliminary Pentagon announcement of the program last year drew a stream of angry comments from officers and veterans on Military.com, a Web site they frequent.
Marty Justis, executive director of the national headquarters of the American Legion, the veterans’ organization, said that while the group opposes “any great influx of immigrants” to the United States, it would not object to recruiting temporary immigrants as long as they passed tough background checks. But he said the immigrants’ allegiance to the United States “must take precedence over and above any ties they may have with their native country.”
The military does not allow illegal immigrants to enlist, and that policy would not change, officers said. Recruiting officials pointed out that volunteers with temporary visas would have already passed a security screening and would have shown that they had no criminal record.
“The army will gain in its strength in human capital,” Freakley said, “and the immigrants will gain their citizenship and get on a ramp to the American dream.”
In recent years, as American forces faced combat in two wars and recruiters struggled to meet their goals for the all-volunteer military, thousands of legal immigrants with temporary visas who tried to enlist were turned away because they lacked permanent green cards, recruiting officers said.
Recruiters’ work became easier in the last few months as unemployment soared and more Americans sought to join the military. But the Pentagon, facing a new deployment of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, still has difficulties in attracting doctors, specialized nurses and language experts.
Several types of temporary work visas require college or advanced degrees or professional expertise, and immigrants who are working as doctors and nurses in the United States have already been certified by American medical boards.
Military officials want to attract immigrants who have native knowledge of languages and cultures that the Pentagon considers strategically vital. The program will also be open to students and refugees.
The army’s one-year pilot program will begin in New York to recruit about 550 temporary immigrants who speak one or more of 35 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Igbo, which is spoken in Nigeria, Kurdish, Nepalese, Pashto, Russian and Tamil. Spanish speakers are not eligible. The army’s program will also include about 300 medical professionals to be recruited nationwide.
Under a statute invoked in 2002 by the Bush administration, immigrants who serve in the military can apply to become citizens on the first day of active service, and they can take the oath in as little as six months.
For foreigners who come to work or study in the United States on temporary visas, the path to citizenship is uncertain and at best agonizingly long, often lasting more than a decade. The military also waives naturalization fees, which are at least $675.
The New York Times