Immigrant soldiers' path to citizenship blocked
By day, Ameya Kulkarni is a mild-mannered software engineer for a Pittsburgh information management company.
But once a month, he's a weekend warrior with the Army's 340th Engineer Company out of New Kensington. Although he's drilled with his unit 10 to 12 times, he is no closer to starting basic training or advancing in his military career than he was a year ago.
That's because a Defense Department directive from September has put his future — and the future of thousands of immigrants like him — on hold.
Kulkarni, 31, of Shadyside enlisted in March 2016 under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI. The program, launched in 2007, allows qualifying foreign nationals living legally in the United States to enter the military and get a fast track to citizenship.
Kulkarni expected to leave for basic training in September but then was told the date had been moved to March. Then he got a call from his recruiter saying the Army wanted to conduct a counterintelligence interview. That was scheduled for this month but was inexplicably canceled, he said.
“I cannot ship to basic training, and neither can I get my citizenship,” he said. “Nobody's giving us any answers as to what is going on.”
Kulkarni, who is living in the United States on a work visa, applied for citizenship in December. He said he did so according to the MAVNI law, which requires a soldier to start drilling with his unit and to get a certification of honorable service from his commander before applying.
Kulkarni said he was expecting to receive his citizenship upon completing his basic training. So far, neither has happened.
“I've gone through all the investigations that are required for a person to become a citizen, but, for whatever reason, they're still not processing our applications,” he said. “Every time we call them, they tell us there is some kind of additional (Department of Defense) screening that they're conducting. They're not even telling us what that is.”
Kulkarni said he passed a Tier 5 investigation, the kind required not for citizenship but for a top-security clearance. He said he understands the need for security in the military but doesn't understand the delays and hassles in a program that is supposed to expedite membership and citizenship.
“We have gone through all the checks, and still we are not getting our citizenship. That's the part that hurts the most,” he said.
The MAVNI program was designed to meet the military's needs for skilled personnel, especially health care professionals and people with foreign language proficiency, and to ease the entry of immigrants into the military, said Margaret Stock, a retired lieutenant colonel and immigration lawyer from Alaska.
New supply of volunteers
Stock introduced the idea for the MAVNI program to the secretary of the Army in 2007, a time when recruitments were down, and ran it as a pilot program for a year.
“The Army was having a hard time finding volunteers for an all-volunteer force, when, in reality, there were lots of people out there who were highly qualified and interested in joining the military,” she said.
At the time, the military was requiring green cards as a condition of enlistment for foreign nationals and, thus, was turning people away, she said, noting that obtaining a green card is time-consuming.
“We decided that we would approach the Pentagon and try to get a recruiting program that would allow legal immigrants that did not yet have green cards to join the military,” she said.
Stock said the U.S. military has a long tradition, dating to the American Revolution, of allowing noncitizens to serve.
“Noncitizens were about 20 percent of the U.S. Army in World War I,” she said.
A native of Pune, India, near Mumbai (Bombay), Kulkarni came to the United States in 2008 to pursue graduate studies in computer engineering at the University of Florida. He graduated in 2010 and moved to Pittsburgh in 2015.
As a Hindi speaker and computer science expert, Kulkarni feels he has a lot to offer the military of his adoptive country.
“After coming here, this country has given me a lot, and I feel like I want to give back,” he said. “Ideally, I would like to contribute in the field of military intelligence or cybersecurity because I have eight to 10 years' experience in IT and I have a master's degree in computer science.”
A lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia traces the recent delays to an Obama administration memo from Acting Undersecretary of Defense Peter Levine, which extended the MAVNI program through Sept. 30, 2017, and heightened the program's security protocols.
The lawsuit, filed by 10 Army Reservists, alleges that the Defense Department “unlawfully” instructed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to stop processing MAVNI applications until the soldiers had received the requisite security clearance.
“The delays are happening because DOD ordered ‘extreme vetting' of MAVNIs and told USCIS not to naturalize any MAVNIs until the vetting was complete,” Stock said. “At the same time, DOD says it doesn't have the resources to do the vetting that was ordered. Hence, no MAVNI can ship to (basic) training and no MAVNI can get naturalized.”
Stock noted that the same vetting is not required of U.S. citizens or green-card holders who join the military.
Kulkarni has sought help from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, and from his own unit commander, who sent a letter of support earlier this month to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He has not received a response from the agency.
USCIS spokeswoman Jane Cowley said she could not comment on specific cases but that the agency is “reviewing” the policy on whether service before basic training counts toward eligibility for citizenship.
“The current hold (on the MAVNI program) applies to all recruits who have not attended basic training or whose security and suitability screening requirements have not been completed — or whose military service has not yet been certified as honorable,” she said. “We're not able to naturalize anybody without that DOD certification.”
DOD spokesman Johnny Michael declined to comment except to say, “The Department of Defense is reviewing the requirements associated with this pilot program, and we are unable to provide detailed responses at this time.”
Casey spokeswoman Jacklin Rhoads declined to comment on Kulkarni's case but said, “The (Trump) administration should keep the promises made to existing service members who signed up for military service under this program and complete all the necessary security and other vetting in a timely fashion.
“These individuals were willing to put their lives on the line for the United States, and their contributions and service should be recognized.”