Pentagon suspends program granting citizenship to foreigners with key language skills

Indian-born Kirti Ahluwalia enlisted in the Army Reserve in June 2016 but has been unable to ship out with her unit because of changes in a program that grants resident aliens citizenship in return for their military service. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]

Indian-born Kirti Ahluwalia enlisted in the Army Reserve in June 2016 but has been unable to ship out with her unit because of changes in a program that grants resident aliens citizenship in return for their military service. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Aug. 12, 2017

The military needed people with skills in foreign languages and in health care, more than it recruited, so it turned to immigrants classified as resident aliens and offered them citizenship in return.

Designed to draw 1,000 people when it launched in 2009, the program eventually attracted 10 times that many.

One of them, Indian-born Kirti Ahluwalia of South Tampa, enlisted in June 2016 and was set to ship out in January with the rest of her Army Reserve unit.

But concerns raised about these new service members under both the Obama and Trump administrations, including the possibility they might pose an "internal threat," prompted a suspension of the program — called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI.

So for eight months, Ahluwalia has been waiting for the okay to start basic training. Under her current visa status, she is prohibited from holding a job, too.

"I'm living in limbo," said Ahluwalia, 29, one of at least two local soldiers affected by the changes. "I can't work. I can't even think of having babies right now. I am in a really weird situation."

Another recruit, 32-year-old Luis Montesdeoca, came to the United States from Ecuador 17 years ago and logs onto an Army website every day from the Valrico home where he lives with his wife and three children. Hoping for updates, Montesdeoca has seen none so far, and the immigration clock is ticking.

"I am concerned about being deported," he said. "You always are."

The need for people like Ahluwalia and Montesdeoca remains strong in the military and the reasons given for the suspension of the MAVNI program are overblown, said Margaret Stock, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who came up with the idea for the program and pushed for its creation.

Losing the program, she said, would be a "big hit" to U.S. Special Operations Command. Headquartered at MacDill, SOCom relies on people with culture and language expertise to help U.S. troops and train foreign allies.

SOCom "will lose access to a pipeline of native cultural and language experts," Stock said. "So they will have to spend more money on less qualified people to do their interpreting and translating. Foreign contractors, presumably.

"They return to the situation that they were in before MAVNI, when they didn't have enough people in the ranks who spoke foreign languages fluently."

SOCom's component commands would have to recruit people with a lower educational level and little fluency then educate them to learn foreign languages — a process that led the command to push for creation of the MAVNI program in the first place, Stock said.

• • •

Last September, the Pentagon under President Barack Obama instituted new vetting requirements for MAVNI recruits and suspended new enlistments. Then in May, under President Donald Trump, an internal Pentagon memo signaled an intention to discontinue the program.

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The reasons given in the memo include "significantly elevated risk" from a counterintelligence perspective and a strain in "extremely limited intelligence assets."

The Pentagon's Office of Inspector General reviewed the program and released classified findings last month. Now, the Pentagon is conducting a review "due to potential security risks associated with the program," said said Army Lt. Col. Paul R. Haverstick Jr., a Pentagon spokesman.

No decision on the future of the program will be made until a review is complete, Haverstick said. And while the Pentagon is not accepting new applicants, it continues to process recruits who are waiting to report for initial training and undergo screening.

Meantime, Defense Secretary James Mattis faces a lawsuit by program participants who argue that they are being discriminated against in the decision to subject them to security checks not required of other troops.

In a 2009 letter to the Army secretary, then-SOCom commander Adm. Eric Olson laid out his support for MAVNI, saying these legal noncitizens are "vital to the national interest" because they have "measurable native language capabilities in at least one of 35 strategic languages or because they are U.S.-licensed health care professionals."

Both skill sets, he wrote, "are in high demand, but difficult and expensive to recruit or train from the U.S. recruiting pool. The MAVNI program is strategically important for Special Operations because no other program within the Department brings immediate high-level capability without associated costs or time."

In 2013, the Army extolled the program's successes, noting that many participants were chosen as squad and platoon leaders, were less likely to leave the Army than other recruits, and had better language skills. There were graduates from Harvard, MIT, Virginia Tech. The program even produced the 2012 Soldier of the Year.

But U.S. Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., raised concerns about the program in June during review of the defense spending bill.

"The lack of discipline in implementation of this program has created problems elsewhere," Russell said. "The program has been replete with problems, to include foreign infiltration — so much so that the Department of Defense is seeking to suspend the program due to those concerns."

Russell's office declined to elaborate, saying the concerns involve classified information.

• • •

Stock, who came up with the idea for the program and now works as an immigration attorney in Alaska, said the recent change of heart "came about because of xenophobia.

"It's not a rational policy change," said Stock, who recently ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the U.S. Senate. "You can tell it's smoke and mirrors because they hide behind 'national security threat' and 'classified' and 'sources and methods' but don't point to any criminal or terrorism or espionage prosecutions or even any court-martials" of any anyone in the program."

One indication that the complaints lack merit, she said, is that none of those in the program have lost their citizenship, which is what the Department of Justice "normally does if they catch a naturalized citizen doing anything bad."

SOCom spokesman Ken McGraw declined to talk about the program's value to the command because SOCom does not track the program, leaving it to the individual service branches. Haverstick, the Pentagon spokesman, said the military is no longer talking about program details because of the lawsuit.

He did say the Pentagon is sympathetic to the status of those in the program.

"We know this involves real people, who are in limbo while they await resolution," he said.

Kirti Ahluwalia came to the United States on a student visa four years ago, earned a master's degree in urban design from Washington University in St. Louis and later married a man from India whom she had dated for a decade.

She is currently enlisted in the Army Reserve as a nutrition care specialist, assigned to the 319th Minimal Care Detachment — a medical unit based in Pinellas Park.

But her interviews and other security clearance checks have been canceled. She doesn't know what's next. Meantime, she can't drill, pick up a weapon or perform any other duties.

Ahluwalia worries about her contract with the military being canceled, meaning an end to her military career and expedited citizenship.

"If I had been on training, this would have been done," she said. "I would have become a U.S. citizen right now."

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.