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The problem with Obama’s new plan to let unauthorized immigrants serve in the military

Yesterday, news broke that the Obama administration plans to let some unauthorized immigrants who'd received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status enlist in the military, by expanding an existing program for immigrant enlistees. But the woman who designed that program says the administration's proposal is an empty promise -- no unauthorized immigrant would actually be able to enlist under its plan.

Margaret Stock won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2013 for her work on immigrants in the military -- including coming up with the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program. MAVNI allows legal immigrants with particular language skills or medical expertise to enlist in the military and get expedited citizenship. That's the program that, according to Friday's report, the Pentagon plans to expand to immigrants who've received deferred action. But as of 2012, the requirements for enlisting under MAVNI include what's called a "Single Scope Background Investigation," or SSBI -- an investigation used throughout the government, usually to give people security clearances. And according to Stock, it's impossible for an unauthorized immigrant, with or without temporary "deferred action" protection, to pass an SSBI.

"SSBI items that cause 'failure' include having undocumented relatives, as well as any 'law violations'," Stock writes in an email to Vox. "I don't see how any DACA can 'pass' unless the contractor doing the investigation ignores his or her instructions." She adds that it's possible that a higher-level official could tell investigators to "override" the instructions, but that would probably provoke an outcry from Republicans who oppose the Obama administration's executive action on immigration. "Pentagon bureaucrats don't stick their necks out like that," she says.

Because the investigation process isn't something the Pentagon controls, Pentagon officials wouldn't be able to change it in order to allow unauthorized immigrants to enlist. The standards are set by the Office of Personnel Management, which controls human resources for the entire federal government -- so in order for unauthorized immigrants to enlist under the MAVNI program, the rules for the entire government would have to change. Stock doesn't find that likely.

Additionally, Stock notes, only 1,500 immigrants a year are currently able to enlist under MAVNI -- and there are "16,000 legal immigrants currently vying for the few hundred slots left" between now and September. So even if any unauthorized immigrants are able to pass the investigation, they'd have to compete with legal immigrants for the remaining slots.

"It is pretty easy for the administration to let the DACAs enlist" by other means, according to Stock. "But pushing them into the current MAVNI program is not the way."

Instead, she says, the plan concocted by the Pentagon is just raising false hope among the unauthorized immigrants who have been fighting to join the military. "It will crush their dreams of enlisting in a cruel way."