A federal district judge in Seattle has ordered the Defense Department to stop discriminating against naturalized citizens who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program. The MAVNI program was created in 2009 to attract immigrants with specialized skills such as critical foreign language skills or specialized healthcare training in exchange for an accelerated path to citizenship. NPR’s Richard Gonzales reports that “[m]ore than 10,000 soldiers have served in the U.S. military through the MAVNI program.”
However, the program was frozen in 2016 due to security concerns. The Department of Defense has required MAVNI participants to undergo “continuous monitoring” which includes security checks every two years, even after discharge if the participants worked for the government or government contractors. No person affiliated with the DoD, other than MAVNI participants, was required to undergo such checks absent particularized suspicion.
The plaintiffs, 17 naturalized citizens who enlisted through the MAVNI program, argued that the increased scrutiny represented unconstitutional discrimination based on national origin. The Pentagon argued that the ongoing security checks were necessary for national security and that they were not based on the plaintiff’s national origin, but on the manner in which they enlisted into the Army.
Judge Thomas Zilly noted however, that the “defendant’s witnesses acknowledged that no MAVNI soldier who has become a naturalized citizen has ever been charged or convicted of espionage or any other criminal offense or been denaturalized.” Judge Zilly found that the evidence in the case “shows that the DoD was aware of the equal protection violations that would arise if naturalized MAVNI soldiers were treated differently from other citizens, but it nevertheless persisted in the discrimination.”