WASHINGTON -- As the Pentagon tries to increase troop numbers, the military is accepting recruits it would have rejected in years past. A different option, several experts say, would be to recruit troops who aren't citizens.
"Military recruiting is in terrible shape right now," said retired Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, who has written extensively on the issue. "There's a big recruiting crisis going on because unemployment is at its lowest level in many years. The demographic that the military tries to recruit is a popular demographic for every U.S. employer."
The military typically looks for recruits between the ages of 18 and 30 who are physically fit, have at least high school diplomas and don't have arrest records -- the same people who are in demand in higher-paying private-sector jobs, according to Kelly Ward, a professor at the National War College.
To meet enlistment goals, the Department of Defense has adjusted recruitment criteria and accepts more recruits from lower qualifying categories.
In fiscal 2017, the Army recruited 69,000 active-duty soldiers, with 1.9 percent coming from the lowest qualifying category. In 2016, only 0.6 percent of recruits were from that group. There is a mandatory cap that says no more than 4 percent of total recruits can be from the lowest-qualifying category.
In November, the total number of troops in the armed services was 1.3 million, up from 1.29 million the year previous, with 865,000 in the reserves and National Guard. For fiscal 2018, the 12 months that end Sept. 30, the Army wants to add 80,000 troops, almost 10,000 more than this year's goal -- a number that may be hard to meet without relying on the low-qualifying recruits.
Reasons for potential recruits being placed in a lower category vary -- from low test scores to previous use of drugs like marijuana, among others -- and the Pentagon mandates that no more than 4 percent of all recruits can come from the lowest category.
But Stock suggested a source for recruits that would not require increasing the number of low-qualification recruits: non-citizens.
She pointed to the United States' long history of enlisting non-citizens. In World War II, for example, Stock said, the U.S. frequently enlisted immigrants who spoke German who were then sent back to Europe to fight and interrogate German troops.
In a 2015 paper, Stock and co-author Naomi Verdugo, a former senior recruiting official for the Army, argues that with fewer native-born Americans looking to join the armed forces, the United States must eventually turn to its foreign-born population for military recruitment.
The foreign-born population of the United States in 2015 was 43.2 million -- or 14 percent -- according to the Pew Research Center. That number is expected to increase, and the foreign-born population may reach 15 percent in 2025, according to the Census Bureau.
With this increase in the immigrant population comes an estimated increase of 2.3 million possible recruits, Stock and Verdugo wrote in their paper. These recruits would provide the U.S. military with valuable language and cultural skills, they said, as well as a group with a "propensity" for service in the armed forces.
One initiative which has allowed non-citizens to enlist in the U.S. armed forces is the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, a program that seeks out highly qualified immigrant recruits and puts them on a fast track to citizenship.
Stock, who led the creation of the program in 2008, said MAVNI provides the recruits with a way to become naturalized citizens and helps the armed forces gain recruits with skills critical to their missions.
To qualify for MAVNI, the recruits must either have proficiency in a language deemed "critical" by the Department of Defense or be a licensed health care professional in a specialty that is beneficial to the armed forces.
Stock said that non-citizens who are fluent in a critical language are an asset to the military because they would be able to integrate better with the local population and understand colloquialisms that can be hard to teach. Typically, when members of the armed forces need to establish language skills, they undergo intensive language courses before being sent abroad. But Stock said these courses -- and their high price tag -- cannot compare to someone who has spoken the language since childhood.
"After spending a quarter of a million dollars on a person [to teach them a language] they're going to be able to carry on a limited, cocktail party conversation," Stock said. "They're never going to reach the fluency of a [native speaker] and they're going to be of limited use to the military."
Since its inception in 2009, MAVNI has rotated 10,400 troops into the branches of the military, mostly the Army, Stock said.
But MAVNI was suspended in 2016 and expired last September due to a backlog of applications, said Pentagon spokesman Maj. David Eastburn. He said that the background checks that recruits must typically go through are intensified for non-citizens and can take months or years to complete.
As a result, MAVNI is not accepting any new applications, and those still in the process have to wait for their paperwork to go through.
"It's taking an exceptional amount of time to clear each candidate for service," Eastburn said.
Eastburn said that he is not aware of any specific plans by the Department of Defense to either restart or replace MAVNI, though he said officials are looking at both possibilities.
As MAVNI hangs in the balance, permanent residents -- or green card holders -- who wish to join the military are also being held up in the background check process. Army Reserve and National Guard enlistment for green card holders has been "on hold" since October, but those individuals may join other branches of the armed services, though their background checks may still take months to process.
A pool of noncitizens that could be good targets are young people who have status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, an Obama-era initiative that provides temporary visas to young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. President Donald Trump ended the program in 2017, and it would have expired March 5 but a federal judge has issued an order delaying the end of the program while halting any new applications. Now, the ball is in Congress' court to find a permanent solution.
The Trump administration in January proposed a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children in return for a $25 billion investment in border security but have backed away from that deal in recent weeks.
Stock said that about 900 MAVNI recruits have had DACA status. Of those 900, she estimated 300 have now acquired American citizenship and another 300 are waiting for their applications to be processed in the background check backlog.
One reason DACA recipients have made up such a small portion of the MAVNI program is that Spanish -- a language spoken by many "dreamers" -- does not qualify as a critical language. Stock said that by limiting DACA recipients' access to programs like MAVNI, the military is missing out on a highly qualified pool of recruits.
"We already have a shortage of people that meet the characteristics that [DACA recipients] reflect," Stock said. "Now, they're saying they may revoke their status and deport them. That's nuts -- that's losing [roughly 800,000] people that could be working and joining the military."
Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said the status of the estimated 900 DACA recipients in the military is still unclear, but that the Department of Defense "[respects] their service and [continues] to support them."
"We are working with our colleagues at [the Department of] Justice and the Department of Homeland Security on a way forward," White said. "We will continue to honor and respect the service they have given."
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative think tank, said though he supports documented immigrants joining the armed forces, he does not think undocumented immigrants -- like those with DACA status -- should be allowed to do the same.
Mehlman said he worries that recruits who are getting a personal benefit from enlisting in the military -- like citizenship -- would not approach the role with as much dedication as those who were joining simply to serve their country.
"The objective of enlisting in the military is that it fulfills one's desire to serve the country," Mehlman said. "This idea that if we don't have enough people in this country that we go out and basically recruit a mercenary army, that is not going to serve in the best interest of the country."
During her time in the military and writing about non-citizens in the armed forces, Stock said she saw many who actively wanted to serve the country they want to call home. But until a decision is made regarding DACA and programs like MAVNI, the military will not be able to look to them as potential recruits.
According to Stock, this means the armed forces are missing out.
"When they had the MAVNI program up and running they did not have a problem finding recruits," Stock said. "When you look at the demographics, it's just numbers."