WASHINGTON - The U.S. Defense Department is changing a program that enables foreign-born military recruits to earn a fast-track path to American citizenship.
The new guidelines rolled out Friday will affect legal permanent residents (LPR), or green card holders, and recruits enrolled in the National Interest (MAVNI) program — launched in 2009 to bring in immigrants with medical or language skills.
"Effective immediately, all LPRs must complete a background investigation and receive a favorable military security suitability determination (MSSD) prior to entry in the active, reserve, or guard service," according to a Defense Department statement.
To be eligible for expedited naturalization, LPRs or recruits now must complete the initial military training requirements of the service in which they are a member, have at least 180 consecutive days of active duty service, or at least one year of satisfactory service in the selected reserve, and pass an extensive background check.
This is a change from the current practice, where a service member would qualify for "expedited naturalization" after one day of service.
Though the program promotes a shortcut to U.S. citizenship, recruits are required to have at least two years of legal U.S. residency. Normally, a green card holder must be a legal permanent resident for at least five years in order to apply for naturalization — or have been a legal U.S. resident and married to a U.S. citizen for at least three years.
Before the announcement, green card holders were allowed to begin training once a background investigation had been initiated. Recruits, however, had to undergo "more-stringent background checks because most have been in the United States for less time."
The Washington Post reported in June that Defense Department officials initially wanted to end the naturalization program along with the contracts of those waiting to serve in the military.
The Pentagon had cited security concerns and put MAVNI on hold in 2016 after determining it did not have competent security against inside threats. The paper said the Pentagon did not identify those potential concerns.
The Military Times reported that more than 10,000 recruits have entered the army forces through the program.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters, these are steps "obviously to save the program, if it can be saved." He said an assessment had found problems with some of the people who had been recruited and that the program needs an "espionage potential."
Pentagon spokesman Laura Ochoa said the agency initiated a security review over the summer and these changes are part of an ongoing evaluation.
Enlistments are now expected to take a year as there is a backlog for federal security clearances at the Office of Personnel Management, the newspaper reported.