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Military offers a path to citizenship

Immigrants without a green card but who have specific language or medical skills get a big incentive to enlist. The Army has recruited more than 100 people in Los Angeles under the pilot program.

September 16, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

Looking more like a student than a soldier, the young Indian in jeans and a T-shirt snapped his heels together and stood at attention in front of an American flag. He raised his right hand and pledged to defend the United States against all enemies.

The enlistment ceremony earlier this month at a military center near Los Angeles International Airport took less than five minutes. With that, he became the 101st person in Los Angeles to join the Army under a program that significantly increases the number of immigrants eligible to serve.

"I think I'm in seventh heaven," he said, grinning.

Until recently, the 25-year-old with a master's degree from Purdue University in Indiana would not have been permitted to sign up. He had come to the U.S. on a student visa, and only citizens or permanent residents who carry green cards were eligible to join the armed forces. That changed in February when the Army started taking applications from foreigners with specific language and medical skills who are here on temporary visas or as refugees or asylum seekers.

Although all military branches are meeting or exceeding their recruitment goals, they have struggled to find individuals with critical skills needed in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond, officials said. In exchange for their service, the foreign recruits -- who offer skills it would take years to teach -- get an expedited path to citizenship.

Since the pilot program began in New York, expanding to Los Angeles in May, the foreign recruits have included 34 healthcare professionals and 385 people who speak languages such as Arabic, Polish and Swahili.

More than 69% of them have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with just under 10% for the Army as a whole.

"These are really accomplished individuals," said Naomi Verdugo, the Army's Pentagon-based assistant deputy for recruiting.

More than 200 slots remain for recruits with language skills in the Army's pilot program, as well as more than 260 for healthcare professionals.

On Aug. 31, Army recruiters in Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas also began taking applications from qualified foreigners proficient in any of 35 languages. (Spanish is not on the list.) Healthcare workers can apply at any Army recruiting station in the country. An additional 110 slots are earmarked for other military branches. The Navy, which is taking applications only for medical posts, signed up its first recruit last month in Houston.

The pilot program has raised concerns among some veterans groups and advocates for tighter immigration controls, who worry that the policy shift could pave the way for large numbers of foreigners, including ones who may not have entered the country legally, to join the armed forces. Still, Army officials say they have not encountered the resistance some had anticipated.

"People seem to recognize that these are folks who want to serve, and I think people respect service," Verdugo said.

Defense officials underscore that the program is open only to foreigners who have lived legally in the U.S. for at least two years. Under a wartime statute invoked in 2002, those who serve can apply for citizenship on the first day of active duty. But to continue the program in peacetime would require a change in existing laws.

The military has long struggled to compete with the private sector for skilled healthcare workers, officials say.

The Los Angeles Recruiting Battalion signed up its first medical recruit in August, a nurse. The pilot program has attracted more than 7,200 applications for language skills, compared with about 1,500 medical applications. So far, the Army has signed up only 34 medical recruits, Verdugo said, in part, because it takes months to verify credentials.

Response has been greatest among certain Asian communities. The Army has enlisted 112 Korean and 108 Hindi speakers. Applicants with those languages are now going on a waiting list.

By expanding the pilot program, the Army hopes to reach more people with languages spoken in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other countries. Only 14 of those enlisted so far speak Arabic and one speaks Dari, one of Afghanistan's two official languages. None of them have tested in Afghanistan's other official language, Pashtu, Verdugo said.

Los Angeles' 101st recruit, Abhinab, tested for Urdu, an official language in Pakistan. The Army requested that his full name not be published because it might put him or his family members who live outside the U.S. at risk.

Abhinab arrived in the U.S. three years ago and decided that he wanted to stay. He had already enrolled in a doctorate program at UC Berkeley when friends told him he could become an American if he joined the Army. Abhinab didn't believe them at first, but headed to the nearest shopping mall to find a recruiter.

"In my childhood, I always used to love 'GI Joe,' " Abhinab said. "The U.S. Army is the most technologically advanced in the world, so being part of it is really exciting."

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