US: Army extends immigrant recruiting

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon May 4 18:40:25 UTC 2009

Army extends immigrant recruiting

Pilot program seeks to boost the ranks of language and healthcare
specialists by offering citizenship.

By Alexandra Zavis and Andrew Becker
May 4, 2009

The lanky 19-year-old from South Korea has lived in the Southland
since he was 9 years old. He is as comfortable speaking English as his
native Korean. And he desperately wants to join the Army. Late last
week, the teenager walked into a recruiting office in an Eagle Rock
mall wearing a pendant shaped like a dog tag around his neck. Until
recently, local recruiters would have had to turn him away. His
student visa would not have qualified him to enlist. Only citizens or
permanent residents who carry green cards were eligible to serve.

 But starting today, 10 Los Angeles-area Army recruiting offices will
begin taking applications from some foreigners who are here on
temporary visas or who have been granted asylum. In all, the pilot
program, which was launched in New York in February, seeks to enlist
1,000 military recruits with special language and medical skills, most
of whom will join the Army. Response to the program has exceeded
expectations, drawing applications from more than 7,000 people around
the country, many of them highly educated, defense officials said.

Those who are accepted will get an expedited path to citizenship in
return for their service. "Ever since I entered high school, I was
waiting for this opportunity," Jason, the 19-year-old aspiring
soldier, told recruiters as they helped him prepare documents to
submit today. "As soon as it came, I just jumped." The Army requested
that applicants' full names not be used because, in some cases, it
could put them or family members at risk in their home countries.

Although the Army has been meeting or exceeding its recruiting goals,
defense officials say there is a shortage of soldiers with medical,
foreign language and cultural abilities needed in the war on terror
and peacekeeping efforts around the world.

"What we're looking for are critical, vital skills," said Naomi
Verdugo, assistant deputy for recruiting in the office of the
assistant secretary of the Army.

The Army hopes to enlist 333 healthcare professionals, including
doctors, dentists, nurses and others. It is also looking for 557
people with any of 35 languages, including Arabic and Yoruba, spoken
in West Africa. Spanish is not on the list. An additional 110 slots
are earmarked for other services, which have not yet started taking
applications for the program.

Although the effort is limited in scope, it has raised concerns among
some veterans groups and advocates for tighter immigration controls.
They question whether the policy shift could pave the way for large
numbers of foreigners, including ones who might have entered the U.S.
illegally, to join the armed services.

"By aggressively recruiting foreigners abroad, or illegal immigrants
who could use such a program to get legalized, we could easily create
a situation where the Pentagon comes to rely on cheap foreign labor,"
said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration
Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

"That's not where we are now. . . . But we always need to be careful
that we don't start going down a steep, slippery slope."

Defense officials emphasize that the program is only open to
foreigners who have lived legally in the U.S. for at least two years,
including students, some professionals and refugees.

Those who enlist are required to meet the same physical and conduct
standards as other recruits and exceed the educational standards. They
are also vetted by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI,
and they will not be granted waivers for any criminal offenses.

Foreign-born residents have a long history in the U.S. armed forces.

Under a wartime statute invoked in 2002, those who serve can apply for
citizenship on the first day of active duty. Naturalization fees are
waived. About 29,000 people with green cards are in the military and
about 8,000 enlist each year, according to Pentagon figures.

Recruiters have already signed up 105 people with targeted languages
and two medical professionals under the new program.

More than 60% of those enlisting under the pilot program have at least
a bachelor's degree, compared with roughly 7% of those joining the
Army through regular channels.

Their average score on a required math and verbal aptitude test is 79
out of a possible 99 points. That's compared with 62 for the average
citizen or permanent resident who enlisted in the Army in the 12
months ending in September.

As word of the New York pilot program spread, many people traveled
across the country to apply.

The 107 enlisted so far include 13 California residents, officials
said. Less than half came from the New York area, including New

Jason was among those who traveled to New York. But he arrived so
tired after an overnight flight that he failed to score the minimum 50
points on a sample aptitude test.

By extending the program to Los Angeles, Army officials hope to make
it easier for applicants on the West Coast to be considered and to
ease the pressure on New York recruiters.

They also want to reach a broader range of language experts. So far,
most of the recruits have been Korean, Indian and Chinese language
speakers. The Army needs more people with languages used in Iraq,
Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, among others. Only four of the
recruits enlisted as Arabic speakers, one speaks Urdu and one speaks

Staff Sgt. Joshua Cannon, who commands the recruiting station where
Jason is applying, is pleased to be able to sign up more aspiring
Americans. The policy restricting applications to people with green
cards has been a source of frustration to local recruiters, who have
struggled for years to find qualified applicants in a city with many
immigrants, especially when the country is at war.

Cannon said his office had been getting calls about the new program
for months. For most of the callers, the biggest draw is the chance to
become citizens in as little as six months, he said. The normal
naturalization process can take five to 15 years.

To retain their citizenship, participants must honorably complete at
least five years of service.

When Jason heard he could apply closer to home, he headed straight
over. This time he scored a respectable 67 on the sample aptitude

After 10 years of living with the uncertainty of temporary visas, he
too is hoping to finally become an American.

His mother, who raised two children alone, never bothered to apply for
green cards for the family, so now he faces the possibility of being
summoned back to South Korea for mandatory military service.

Jason is also looking for a way to complete his studies at Pasadena
City College.

His mother's grocery store is struggling, so he had to defer for two
semesters after his first year to help keep the business going.
Although his mother worries that Jason could be sent to Iraq or
Afghanistan, he will not be dissuaded.

"I would have to go to the army in Korea anyway, so let's make it
count for something," he said. "A new life. A new beginning."

alexandra.zavis at

abecker at

This story was reported and written in collaboration with the Center
for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, a nonprofit news
organization. Andrew Becker is a CIR staff reporter. Alexandra Zavis
is a Times staff writer.

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