Arts, Culture & Media

Join the Army, Speak a Language and Become a Citizen

In 2009 the US Army piloted a yearlong program allowing immigrants with certain language skills or medical training to enlist in the military and receive citizenship by the end of basic training –that’s just 10 weeks. The program was a wild success, enlisting nearly 1,000 people with thousands more on the wait list.

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The program has been brought back for a second trial period this October. Already, about 200 people have enlisted. One of them is Yoon Young Kim, a South Korean national. He joined the Army just a few weeks ago. He’s set to leave for basic training in April. By the end of summer 2013, he’s scheduled to raise his hand again to swear another oath, this time as a U.S. citizen.

When Kim came to the U.S. eight years ago to study nursing he never thought he’d be enlisting in the U.S. military. Certainly not at age 32. He worries about his English and keeping up physically with a bunch of 20-year-olds at boot camp.

“Mentally, probably I’m better than them but physically I’m weak,” says Kim. “So right now I’m trying to work on myself for push-ups, sit-ups and running.”

Before enlisting, Kim was getting frustrated trying to find a job in nursing. His visa was running out. That’s why he leaped at the chance at fast track citizenship with the U.S. Army.

Immigrants fighting for the American military is nothing new. Substantial number of people who have served in the military during wartime in past wars has been immigrants. While immigrants have fought in wars since 1775, things changed after 9/11. A new federal rule required legal immigrants to have a green card to be able to enlist. Suddenly the Army was forced to turn away thousands of qualified applicants.

“I would get calls from people in the military,” says immigration attorney and retired Army lieutenant colonel, Margaret Stock. They would say “‘hey, how come Tanya so and so just walked into the recruiters office and she’s got U.S. high school diploma and speaks three languages and has got high test scores but I’m not allowed to let her in because she’s not got a green card,’ and they’d call me to try and get her a green card.”

And then an idea came to Stock. What if the military took advantage of a legal loophole? Stock discovered the loophole in a statute passed by Congress. “They put an exception in the statute,” says Stock, “that a person who didn’t meet the normal criteria could voluntary enlist if the person’s enlistment was vital to the national interest.”

That loophole became the Military Accessions Vital to The National Interest—or MAVNI—program. The US military today has missions all over the world and recruiting men and women who speak the local language and know the local culture is vital. Yoon Young Kim hopes his Korean language skills might be useful in monitoring North Korea.

It turns out many other Koreans are as ready as Kim. While there are 44 desired languages on the MAVNI recruitment list from Russian and Hindi to smaller Filipino dialects like Cebuano or Moro, Korean speakers have signed up in droves. The force behind this swell of enthusiasm is James Hwang. If you have a question about the MAVNI program he’s the person to contact.

“I got almost more than 100 emails per day,” says Hwang who is a civilian. He always wanted to serve in the Army but when he visited a recruiter years ago without a green card, he was turned away. Then he heard about MAVNI and made it his mission to spread word about the program to other Koreans. He hosts info sessions in his home and fields questions on Facebook. He is even responsible for two MAVNI marriages. Why does he do it?

“There were many people before this program who were on a non-immigrant visa for many years,” says Hwang. “They didn’t really have very much hope for becoming a permanent resident because of the backlog of the US immigration system.”

Hwang’s effort has led to an overwhelming number of Koreans applying.

“The Korean community got so enthusiastic and mobilized about the program,” says attorney Margaret Stock, “that if we had let the program run first come first serve we probably would’ve ended up with 800 Korean language speakers and nobody from any other language groups.”

The Army ended up putting a quota on Korean speakers. Stock is happy that MAVNI is so popular. But she says the program shouldn’t really exist. What MAVNI really points out is a broken immigration system.

“If our nation had comprehensive immigration reform—if we had a legal immigration system that worked—we wouldn’t need a program like MAVNI,” says Stock. “We could just draw on the population of people living in the US with green cards.”

Yoon Young Kim, though, smiles at his good fortune. He was one of the last Korean citizens to enlist before the Korean language quota was met last month. Of course not everyone understood his decision to serve. When he told his parents in South Korea that he was going to join the Army they were shocked. In fact, they told him not to join. But Kim was determined. “I just said, ‘Mom and Dad, I’m not applying to the US military to die. I’m applying to live, to survive.’”

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