History and Status of the MAVNI Program

MAVNI recruited professional immigrants With language skills

Jose Fernando Ogura/Curitiba/Brazil/Moment/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Defense launched the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program –MAVNI – in early 2009. The DOD renewed and expanded the program in 2012, then renewed it once more in 2014.

MAVNI is in limbo as of 2017 after expiring again 2016. Its future is up in the air, but this isn't to say that it won't be renewed yet again. 

What Is MAVNI and Why the Expansion? 

The idea behind the program was to recruit immigrants with special talents who were fluent in languages that the U.S. military – and the Army in particular – considered critical. The expansion was fueled on two fronts: the Army needed more recruits with special skills and language capabilities, and immigrants kept requesting it. A campaign on Facebook drew the support of thousands of immigrants who wanted to participate in MAVNI.

The push for more talented immigrants in the military grew out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Pentagon found itself short on translators, cultural experts and medical personnel who spoke critical languages that were necessary on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the languages most needed were Arabic, Persian, Punjabi and Turkish.

The Pentagon announced in 2012 that it would enlist 1,500 MAVNI immigrants each year for two years to help fill its critical needs, mostly in the Army. The military was looking for native speakers of 44 languages: Azerbaijani, Cambodian-Khmer, Hausa and Igbo (West African dialects), Persian Dari (for Afghanistan), Portuguese, Tamil (South Asia), Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, Burmese, Cebuano, Chinese, Czech, French (with citizenship from an African country), Georgian,  Haitian Creole, Hausa, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Kurdish, Lao, Malay, Malayalam, Moro, Nepalese, Pashto, Persian Farsi, Punjabi, Russian, Sindhi, Serbo-Croatian, Singhalese, Somali, Swahili, Tagalog, Tajik, Thai, Turkish, Turkmen, Urdu, Uzbek and Yoruba.

Who Was Eligible? 

The program was open only to legal immigrants. Although the Army has a long history of recruiting immigrants with permanent residency – green card holders – the MAVNI program expanded eligibility to those who were living in the U.S. legally but didn't have permanent status. Applicants had to be legally present in the U.S. and provide a passport, I-94 card, I-797 from or other employment authorization or required government documents.

Candidates were required to have at least a high school diploma and to score 50 or higher on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. They could not require an enlistment waiver for any kind of previous misconduct. Immigrants who were recruited for special professions had to be practitioners in good standing.

What Was in It for the Immigrants? 

In return for their service, those who successfully participated in the program could apply for U.S. citizenship on an expedited basis. Instead of waiting years to become naturalized, a MAVNI immigrant could get U.S. citizenship within six months or less. In many cases, recruits could get their citizenship after completing basic training.

The military naturalization applicants paid no fees for their applications, but they did have a contractual obligation to serve in the military for a minimum of four years' active duty for language recruits, or a choice of three years' active duty or six years' select reserve for medical recruits.

All MAVNI recruits had an eight-year contractual commitment to the military including non-active service, and the naturalization could be revoked if an applicant did not serve at least five of those years.

This program was particularly useful to J-1 visa physicians who were in the U.S. for two years and had medical licenses but still had to fulfill the two-year home residence requirement. Those physicians could use their military service to satisfy the residence requirement.