Real reform starts with more visas

Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Want to become a naturalized U.S. citizen? As you probably know, you’ll have to get a green card first.

Unless, that is, you qualify for MAVNI.

MAVNI, or Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, is a relatively small Pentagon program created to bolster our military with more foreign-born recruits “holding critical skills — physicians, nurses, and certain experts in language with associated cultural backgrounds.” In return, recruits are put on a fast track to citizenship. On Thursday, the Pentagon extended the program — which is subject to periodic review and renewal — for two more years and expanded eligibility to include a handful of applicants who have received deportation reprieves under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

MAVNI recruits typically hold temporary visas, such as the F-1 (student) or H-1B (professional), and would normally have to wait many years, perhaps decades, before obtaining green cards. The MAVNI shortcut to citizenship is a win-win for the recruits and the military; boosting the number of high-skilled new citizens in the military is a good thing.

But we need more new citizens — in every occupation and at all skill levels — in civilian life if we want to have any hope of competing with China and India. “Competitiveness,” after all, is the buzzword flying from the lips of local, state and federal politicians and from the websites of economic think tanks.

Raising the U.S. birth rate is unlikely, and unsound for environmental reasons, so we must look to naturalization, and that means more green cards first. And the green card quota system is one of the many aspects of our immigration law that is badly broken.

We need a surge of green card visa numbers on the front end, right now, to wipe out the backlog of thousands of family members and potential employees who have been waiting in line patiently for years.

And to eliminate a future buildup of another undocumented immigrant population, we need many more visa numbers in every visa category. In fact, most categories should be uncapped. The reason we have an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. today is that the wait for most visas is too long, or there is no line at all.

It’d be relatively easy for Congress to tinker with the Immigration and Nationality Act to change the names of certain visa categories and create new categories altogether, such as slots for entrepreneurs. This would give the appearance of reform.

It’d be much harder for members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — to tell their constituents, clearly and honestly, that real reform means more immigration, not just different immigration.

After many years of dodging the bullet, Congress seems to have accepted the fact that our immigration system is broken, and seems willing — at some point — to make a serious attempt at reform. But will our senators and representatives really do the hard work needed to make that a reality?

If we truly want to compete on the world stage, we need a civilian version of MAVNI to bring in more tax-paying immigrants and newly naturalized citizens. And we need it now.

Daniel M. Kowalski

Immigration lawyer