You’re known for your work that ties immigration policy to national security. When did you start linking the two together?
I’ve been doing immigration law since 1993 when I took on a pro bono case. My theoretical work linking immigration policy to national security rose after 9-11 when we were focusing on toughening up the borders, registering immigrants and keeping people out of America to make us safer. We didn’t realize we were undercutting our security, our civil liberties, and our ability to attract the best and brightest to America. I tried to explain that we need to bring in people who have skills that grow our economy and strengthen our families.
The MAVNI program came out of an idea that you presented in a PowerPoint at a brainstorming conference for the army. What was that idea?
The army was having a huge recruiting crisis. I was invited to a conference to brainstorm ways to improve military recruitment. I pitched the idea to give legal immigrants without green cards a chance at naturalization through military service. In prior wars, we had always enlisted immigrants regardless of their citizenship status.
I thought it was a great idea but was told that the Pentagon crushes great ideas, and it might take five years to get the idea approved. I was a little discouraged but I charged ahead. It became clear to everyone that it was just a policy decision; the legal authority already existed. People always came to a dead end because no one understood immigration law. By May 2008, I got the Secretary of the Army to sign off, which took five months, and by November 2008, it was approved by the Secretary of Defense. So it took less than a year to get the project through the Pentagon.
Did the end result match your expectations?
There was a lot of opposition but not reasoned opposition. A lot of “We have never done it this way before.” When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced the program and said that we could do a one-year pilot program, his office limited it to compromise with the bureaucracy. We had no budget to market it or advertise it, and there was a cap at 1,000 people. The army could get 890 recruits; the navy, 100, and the air force, 10.
What was the turnout like?
There was one guy that called me and… he said “I get you 40,000 Koreans and we all go to Afghanistan to fight for America.” I told him it wasn’t the French Foreign Legion. The program was for immigrants who were health-care professionals or language experts. It was taking ten or fifteen years for them to get green cards. Many were already working for the military, but on a slow track to getting a green card. You have to have a 15-year relationship with a lawyer if you want to get through. I got a ton of thank you cards from immigrant doctors and nurses afterward. The only problem was there was a quota, and there were around 15,000 applying for 890 Army slots. As an immigration lawyer, I was really struck by this. The reason it was so popular was because the legal immigration system is broken. There’s an enormous amount of work and the bureaucracy and paperwork is incredible. MAVNI seemed like a gift from heaven, and we had a huge demand.
Will simplifying the process for immigrants to join the military make the U.S. vulnerable to terrorists infiltrating the armed forces?
The U.S. is already vulnerable to terrorists infiltrating the Armed Forces. Timothy McVeigh, Nidak Malik Hassan, and Aaron Alexis were all native-born Americans whom I suppose one could say “infiltrated” the armed forces and later committed horrific murders. While one can’t ever make a system perfect, the risk factor from immigrants is lower because they undergo much more extensive security checks to join the military than native-born enlistees. Simplification of the process does not include eliminating those checks. You’re making two wrong assumptions—first, that immigrants are more likely to be terrorists than native-born Americans, and there’s no evidence of that; and second, that making a process simpler must mean eliminating some security checks, which is also not the case.
The Foundation highlighted two more of your programs when they notified you of the grant. What were the ideas behind them?
The Department of Homeland Security was under fire for not processing military naturalizations fast enough. I said, ‘Why don’t you naturalize everyone at basic training like we did during the Korean and Vietnam War?’ I went back to the military and told them we could save money, improve morale and not have legal problems. I got Homeland Security to test soldiers and naturalize them at basic training in April 2009. It became a formal program by August 2009, and it’s still in place today. Now all the services except the Coast Guard are doing naturalization at basic training.
Also, in 2007, I was getting inundated with immigration questions from the military. I called the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) to match pro bono lawyers with military members, veterans and their families who have immigration problems. He assigned someone at AILA National to develop the American Immigration Lawyers Association Military Assistance Program (AILAMAP). I screened cases and assigned them to lawyers. We’ve made the program more formalized now. We have a listserv, a Web site, there’s outreach. We have a pro bono associate at the Washington office. That started six years ago, and it’s been very successful.
How did the Pentagon overlook the legal precedent they had to simplify both the immigration and the military recruitment process?
I think people just forgot history, and they didn’t have immigration lawyers at the Pentagon. In World War One, immigrants were 20 percent of the force. During World War Two, we declared war on Germany, and the Germans in the country were supposed to be deported. But instead, we turned them into citizens and drafted them. After the Vietnam War, they created a regulation requiring people to get a green card before they joined the military, and that prevented people from joining. People are power. You don’t want to deport your manpower. But we’ve forgotten about that.
Did you play a part in the Senate’s immigration reform bill?
I did work on it a little bit, but they asked me to comment on it when they had already drafted the bill. I think it’s great but they’re continuing in the trend of making things very complicated. Even people who benefit from the bill will have to have a close relationship with a lawyer for ten to fifteen years. That’s troubling. I think I plan on advocacy to simplify the system.
In the bill, swifter naturalization is commensurate with stronger border security. What do you think about the philosophy behind that?
The bill shows the people don’t understand what’s driving unauthorized immigration. If they make a pathway that allows people to come legally, they’re not going to need as much border security. They’re not going to need the wall, but they’re going to build it because of a compromise measure. It’s going to waste a lot of money.
Your work tends to ask people in power to simplify existing policies. What are things President Obama can do but hasn’t yet?
It’s similar to the MAVNI program where people don’t realize they have the authority to do things. Here’s a big example: Right now there’s a policy that allows Cubans to adjust their status because it’s in our interest for Cubans to not go back and stay in the U.S., but there’s no policy like that for immigrant military families. I think it’s crazy that we have a policy that can deport military families to where they might be hurt.
Also, they’re not letting the youth who benefit from the Childhood Arrivals Program join the military. Obama could issue a memo saying they can join the military but no one’s done that. There’s also the banished veterans issue. They deport veterans all the time for technical violations of immigration law. I’m working on legislation to fix that problem.
How has all your work with the military affected your professional and personal life in Alaska?
My husband was complaining about it because I was getting lots of phone calls. For MAVNI, I spent all my waking hours on it, and I wasn’t paid for a good majority of it. He would joke, “You got three Harvard degrees and can’t you figure out for them to pay for this?” When we were doing taxes, my income was miserably low for a lawyer doing the amount of work I did. I think my husband realized I was passionate about what I was doing, and he should put up with it.
The grant really is gratifying. I can’t explain it well. I didn’t think the MacArthur Foundation gave grants to people like me who work in bureaucratic trenches. The coolest project I’ve done in my life is MAVNI, but I didn’t think the MacArthur Foundation would ever find out about it. I did all the press for it, but I never wanted to be quoted.
What’s next for you?
I’ve worked with Rep. Mike Thompson’s office in California on a bill for military families and have been working with Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado on the Military Enlistment Opportunity Act. He’s a Republican, a tea party guy. His bill basically puts MAVNI into statute, and it includes more than just medical professionals but other people who are highly qualified.
Does this grant change anything?
I think the great thing about this is not feeling bad about this pro bono stuff. I don’t have to worry about that. I have a really nice husband who’s been supportive, but he’s been tired of me having this hobby. I don’t have to feel guilty about helping even though though I’m not being paid for it. It’s been fairly exhausting at times. The journalists should see my inbox. The e-mails are unbelievable.
This interview has been edited and condensed.