U.S. troops are sworn in as naturalized American citizens on Nov. 2, 2012, at Bagram air base in Afghanistan. (U.S. State Department photo)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that he supports reactivating a program designed to attract foreign military recruits who agree to serve in exchange for fast-tracked U.S. citizenship.

Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis said the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, was suspended a year ago and additional security measures were put in place to guard against “espionage potential” among U.S. military recruits born in other countries. Those new regulations left the program paralyzed, ending a reliable stream of high-quality troops.

“We are taking the steps obviously to save the program, if it can be saved,” Mattis said. “And I believe it can.”

His remarks are the first clear sign Defense Department leaders have backed away from internal recommendations to kill the program and scuttle the contracts of those waiting to serve, a strategy discovered in an undated memo obtained and first disclosed by The Washington Post in June. The memo said about 1,000 foreign-born recruits already had lost their legal immigration status while waiting to receive orders and that any cancellation could expose them to deportation.

The Pentagon, citing potential security concerns, has not said whether any threats have been identified. Those fears, coupled with the burden of performing additional security checks, compelled officials to shutter the program.

The MAVNI program has produced more than 10,400 troops since 2009 — personnel who possess language and medical skills deemed vital to military operations and in short supply among U.S.-born troops. The military continues to process those who enlisted before the program was suspended.

Also Friday, the Pentagon said it is extending tighter enlistment regulations for green-card holders, who are permanent legal residents of the United States. Previously, they could enlist and ship for training, provided their background checks were initiated. Now, they must pass those screenings before arriving for initial training, a process that could take up to a year, said Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Ochoa.

Historically, green-card holders have faced fewer investigative obstacles than MAVNI recruits, who must pass more-stringent background checks because most have been in the United States for less time.

In addition, green-card holders and those in the MAVNI program now must wait 180 days after beginning active-duty service, or a full year in the military reserve, before they can receive U.S. citizenship. Previously, they could have been naturalized during basic training — after a few days or weeks.

Green-card holders are reliable recruits who stay in the military longer than those born in the United States, a 2011 study concluded and recommended that the services target this specific demographic as part of their recruiting efforts.

The faster naturalization process was created after the death of a soldier, Spc. Kendall K. Frederick of Trinidad, who was killed in Iraq in 2005 before earning his U.S. citizenship. Congress passed a law after his death, expediting the process.

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