RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. Army has an ongoing critical need for medical personnel and native speakers of foreign languages. It fills that need in part with recruits who are not U.S. citizens. In exchange, those recruits get to become Americans at the conclusion of their military service. The future of that program, however, is now unclear. And to talk about it, we are joined now by NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, who's been following this.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: First, explain how this program has worked.
BOWMAN: Well, first of all, it's a military program, so you have to use an acronym. It's called MAVNI, Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest.
MARTIN: (Laughter) OK.
BOWMAN: And it's an 8-year-old program. In essence, it was created to bring in those with critical skills. Languages, strategic languages - there are some three dozen languages here. And also medical skills, too - I'm told about two thirds of the Army Reserve dentists are in this program. Now after eight years, those in the program, if they serve honorably, they get U.S. citizenship. And that's the draw for these folks who have green cards or are on visas.
And about 4,000 to 5,000 have already been through the program, are in uniform and serving. And I'm told around 4,000 or more are awaiting basic training. They're just kind of in limbo now.
BOWMAN: By the way, the program has been frozen. So let's say if I'm from Guatemala, I go to a recruiting station...
BOWMAN: ...They're basically going to say, you know, sorry, we've frozen this program.
MARTIN: Frozen the program.
MARTIN: All right. So on its face, that sounds like a great deal. Right? The U.S. Army gets these people who have these valuable skill sets. These people get to become U.S. citizens, which is what they want. What are the problems?
BOWMAN: Well, what's changed now from the Obama administration to the Trump administration is some in the Pentagon now - in the intelligence community say, listen, the vetting of these recruits is just not strong enough. And there have been, I'm told, possible security issues - some investigations of some of these recruits with possible ties to foreign intelligence agencies. So there's talk of...
MARTIN: Spies? They think they're spies?
BOWMAN: Possible spies, right. So I'm told there's talk of improving the vetting, but that's time consuming and expensive. And of course, the thousands of recruits could tie up those doing security clearances. I'm also told there are problems with poor management of the program. Some of these recruits with language skills aren't being used as linguists. So while there are problems, you know, those in the Army say, listen, this is vital.
BOWMAN: We really need this. This is a good thing to do.
MARTIN: Are there specific countries that are more worrisome than others, specific recruits from places who are more worrisome?
BOWMAN: Well, I'm not sure about that. But what we do know is that most of the folks in this program are from China or Korea. But there are about three dozen other languages here, everything from Arabic to Thai to Swahili and Urdu. And...
MARTIN: So these are not recruits coming from Central America, South America?
BOWMAN: No, they're from all over the world. And here's the thing that the Army will say in support of this program. They're saying, these recruits from other countries have educational levels that exceed the Army average. And also, they have higher re-enlistment rates compared to recruits who are already citizens. So the Army's really hot on this program.
MARTIN: So then where is this going? I mean, if there are supporters of the program in the Army at the same time they're calling for this thing to be cut, what's the endgame?
BOWMAN: Well, the Army is pushing back. They want to retain as many of these folks as possible. They say the program's important. But there's a concern, again, with vetting of these folks. Congress is also weighing in now as the Pentagon tries to decide the way ahead.
Congressman Steve Russell, a Republican from Oklahoma, says there are some major issues when it comes to vetting these immigrant recruits. And then you have Senator Mark Warner of Virginia who says, listen, the U.S. should honor the contracts signed by these recruits, and these language and medical skills are necessary. He doesn't want to end this program.
And I'm told that this has reached Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He's struggling with this, too. But we expect some sort of decision in the next several weeks. And again, they would like to keep some of these folks in the program, as many as possible.
MARTIN: In the meantime, as you note, there are people who already made this deal, they believed, with the U.S. government - with the U.S. military. And now their status is unclear.
BOWMAN: Absolutely. And some could be deported, by the way, if they get thrown out of this program and the visas expire. Some who raised their hand and want to serve the United States military could be deported.
MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman - thanks so much, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome Rachel.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we mistakenly say that it takes eight years for a member of the armed services who is in the MAVNI program to get U.S. citizenship. In fact, under the program’s fast track to citizenship, officials say, the process can sometimes take weeks, months or years – but not eight years.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.