MAVNI Program – Citizenship Through the Military

The Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) is a small, exclusive program that allows foreign nationals to gain expedited citizenship in exchange for military service. Typically, all of the United States military branches require enlistees to be permanent residents of the United States, green card holders, but the MAVNI program allows certain non-immigrants with special health care and language skills to join the military and be eligible for U.S. citizenship without first obtaining a green card.

The program began as a pilot in 2009 and was amended in September of 2016 with additional security reviews and screenings. The additional security measures have effectively placed the MAVNI program on hold and have created uncertainty among future and current MAVNI enlistees about the program’s future.


To qualify for the MAVNI program a foreign national, at the time of enlistment, must:

(1) Be a refugee, asylee, of temporary protected statutes, or be a member of one of the nonimmigrant categories (E, F, H, I, J, K, L, M, O, P, Q, R, S, T, TC, TD, TN, U, or V);

(2) Have been in one of the above valid status for at least two years, however, it does not have to be the same category as the one held at the time of enlistment;

3) Not have a single absence of more than 90 days from the U.S. during that two year period; and

(4) Be a healthcare professional or expert in key languages.

The MAVNI program is open to individuals who have been granted deferred action by the Department of Homeland Security pursuant to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) process. Their applications will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

  1. Special Skills

To qualify for the MAVNI program a foreign national must be a member of the health care profession or be an expert in a key language. A healthcare applicant must:

(1) Fill medical specialties where the service has a shortfall;

(2) Meet all qualification criteria required for their medical specialty, and the criteria for foreign-trained Defense Department medical personnel recruited under other authorities;

(3) Demonstrate proficiency in English; and

(4) Commit to at least three years of active duty, or six years in the Selected Reserve.

Applicants who are an expert in a key language must:

(1) Possess specific language and culture capabilities in a language critical to the United States Defense Department (full list of languages here);

(2) Demonstrate a language proficiency;

(3) Meet all existing enlistment eligibility criteria; and

(4) Enlist for at least four years of active duty.

Recent Delays

The September 2016 additional security screenings and requirements have delayed enlistee’s deployment. These changes have affected the entire MAVNI program, which includes applicants seeking to join, applicants working with recruiters, enlistees who have delayed entry or delayed training, and enlistees already at, undergoing, or completing basic training. The additional delays have caused some MAVNI enlistee’s deployment date to be delayed or canceled.

Many of the MAVNI enlistees who are having their ship dates to basic training pushed back or canceled are members of the Delayed Entry Program (DEP). Almost any enlistee, not exclusive to MAVNI enlistees, who join a branch of the military must first join the DEP while he or she waits for his or her shipment date. The DEP is an enlistment into the inactive reserves with an agreement to report for active duty at a certain date. One can remain in the DEP for up to 365 days.

While waiting for security clearance and a new ship date, many MAVNI enlistees’ lose their nonimmigrant visa status and are at risk of being removed from the MAVNI program or being deported. Anyone may request to be withdrawn from the DEP, but a request to be withdrawn due to one’s status as a non-citizen will make the individual permanently ineligible to become a citizen of the United States.

A class action lawsuit is currently in the process of being filed against the Defense Department (DoD) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for unlawfully delaying the naturalization of MAVNI enlistees with additional security screening. The class action alleged that the Defense Department (DoD) has no legal authority to “re-screening” MAVNI enlistees because a MAVNI enlistee was entitled to U.S. citizenship pursuant to DoD’s statutory authority obligations under 8 U.S.C. § 1440 in exchange for his or her military service. Furthermore, at the time of the DoD’s re-screening, the MAVNI enlistees in this suit had already performed military drills and been assigned reserve units.

In contrast, the DoD argued that the MAVNI program was always a pilot and any changes to the program cannot be litigated because the DoD has not made a final rule. The DoD argued that the additional security screenings were an amendment and not a rule; therefore, the plaintiffs needed to wait until the agency released a final rule before litigating. Finally, the DoD alleged that the additional security screenings do not change the naturalization process for MAVNI enlistees because DHS uses the enhanced background check in its administrative application handling protocol within the required background investigation process.

This class action lawsuit has yet to be certified and to go to trial but offers the potential for a remedy to all MAVNI enlistees. Notwithstanding the pending litigation, MAVNI enlistees who are at risk of losing their non-immigration status have two options. First, they can apply for deferred action. Second, they can apply for citizenship if they have already served.

  1. Deferred Action

Deferred action allows a nonimmigrant to remain in the United States despite his or her lapsed immigration status. Being a DEP enlistee, including through the MAVNI program, is considered a “particularly strong positive factor” supporting a grant of Deferred Action. MAVNI enlistees may pursue deferred action on their own and are not required to work with the Defense Department or the Department of Homeland Security.

To apply for deferred action, a DEP enlistee must submit the following to the Director of the USCIS Field Office with jurisdiction over the requestor’s place of residence:

(1) A letter requesting Deferred Action stating the basis of the request, along with evidence supporting a favorable exercise of discretion (the enlistment contract and related service documents on delayed entry or delayed entry cancellation);

(2) Proof of identity and nationality (birth certificate, passport and/or ID Card, driver’s license),

(3) I-94 or other document showing lawful admission–only if applicable (and any other documents issued by other DHS components or legacy INS);

(4) USCIS Form G-325A;

(5) Two (2) identical, color, passport style photographs; and

(6) Any other evidence of any additional discretionary factors that the requestor would like USCIS to consider.

If deferred action is approved, one may apply for employment upon showing economic necessity.

  1. Apply for Naturalization

MAVNI members who have already served honorably in active duty or certain drilling members of the Selected Reserve are eligible for naturalization even if their shipment date was delayed or canceled. Naturalization through wartime does not have a service requirement and one day of service after September 11, 2001, makes a foreign national eligible for citizenship.

MAVNI enlistees who qualify for naturalization through wartime may want to consider applying for deferred action in addition to citizenship because the process of obtaining citizenship can be long and an enlistee’s visa may expire during the process. Deferred action may be applied for in addition to other immigration filings and being granted deferred action would ensure a MAVNI enlistee would stay in the program if his or her naturalization request were denied.


The increased security measures have effectively halted the MAVNI program while creating insecurity among current members. Despite these setbacks, there are still options available to current MAVNI enlistees to help obtain the citizenship the military initially promised. Speaking with an immigration attorney can help establish the necessary strategy and take the right steps to obtaining U.S. citizenship.