MAVNI program launched in 2008 allows foreign nationals, legally present in the US, to become American citizens through military service.
KATHMANDU, July 1: Nepali youths who had hoped to become citizens of the US through enlistment in the military there, are now unsure if this path will still work for them as the authorities introduced additional vetting last fall to ensure that those with ties to terrorism are not able to enlist.
The added scrutiny of foreign nationals may mean that those who had wish to join the military will no longer be able to acquire legal status in the US by doing so, thereby exposing them to potential deportation.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, according to US media reports, has been given an undated memo which would cancel the contracts of 1,000 foreign nationals without legal status. It is unclear at this time if this includes any Nepalis.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a recently retired US Army specialist of Nepali origin said that roughly 300 Nepalis, who have signed enlistment papers but are yet to complete basic training, are now in a legal limbo, owing to the US Department of Defense's halting of the Military Accession Vital to Natural Interest (MAVNI) program.
Describing the mood of those affected, this retired serviceman said, “They are disappointed because before, if you were willing to join the service, you could walk into the recruiter's office and sign the papers. It was a good deal; you could become a citizen and serve.”
MAVNI program allows foreign nationals, legally present in the US, to become American citizens through military service. The program, which began in 2008 under the then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, is one way Nepalis who have traveled to the US on student visas become citizens.
The program, originally capped at 1,000, had that limit raised to 5,000 when MAVNI was extended in 2014 until 2016.
The increased security measures have affected those already in the military as well and not just those trying to join. Nepalis currently in the US military have been required to submit to extra screening, leaving even those who have completed basic training anxious as to their immigration status.
A US serviceman of Nepali origin, requesting anonymity, has claimed security clearances are not being granted to those soldiers who enlisted through the MAVNI program. He said, “According to Army policy, race or color should not matter but that now we are being discriminated against because of our national origin and that if I could get a security clearance, the [US] Army could use me better if I could do what I had a degree in.”
The same serviceman added that a memo had been disseminated informing foreign nationals that they could receive a security clearance if they were to re-enlist. “It's like the US military is trying to get more from foreigners than citizens,” he said.
There's a growing interest amongst Nepalis to join the US military and with the US military looking to expand, many hope the MAVNI program can continue to provide a pathway to citizenship. However, with President Trump now in office, there are fears that the US military might not want any foreign troops.
On February 12, 2017, naturalized US citizens, who had obtained their citizenship through the MAVNI program, lodged a constitutional challenge to the rule, which had inhibited them from receiving security clearances, at the US district court in Seattle. These security clearances are often necessary for promotion or re-assignment.
Another suit was filed on May 24, 2017 at a DC federal court, arguing that the US Department of Defense had illegally delayed the naturalization process for non-citizen Army reservists.
The US Armies Soldier of the Year in 2012, Sgt. Saral K Shrestha, who was born and raised in Kathmandu, traveled to the US on a student visa before becoming a US citizen through the MAVNI program. In a story on him, posted on the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website, Sgt. Shrestha is quoted as describing MAVNI as a “blessing.”
When inquired about these developments, a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Kathmandu, Ineke Stoneham, suggested República contact the US Department of Defense directly for comment “This seems to be Department of Defense decision,” she wrote in an email.