Enhance force levels? Look to immigrants.

The US should grant preference for visas to those willing to serve in the military.

While in Moscow as US Defense attaché from 2001 to 2003, I received several calls from Russians with a remarkable and unexpected request. They wanted to join the United States Army.

I often think of those phone calls now as I consider the efforts our nation makes to find and recruit quality men and women into the service. Is there an opportunity out there beyond our borders that we ought to explore while recruiting the best and brightest to our nation's defense?

I would like to make the case that there is, and it could benefit our nation in a number of ways.

As our country debates a multitude of immigration issues, otherwise opposing sides seem to agree on at least one thing: There is value in recruiting immigrants into our military forces.

The president and Congress have been working with the Department of Defense since 2002 to encourage legal immigrants to join the military by promising to speed up the process for citizenship for any member of the service who completes one year of duty. In the four years since the program began, more than 25,000 immigrants in uniform have become American citizens. That's the equivalent of one of the active Army's 10 divisions being manned entirely by immigrants.

The average American may not know it, but non-US citizens have for years been accepted into our military as volunteers. The only prerequisite has been a green card demonstrating permission to reside in the US. Most of these immigrants became American citizens, having served in our nation's defense even before they received all of its benefits and rights. Instead of thinking outside the box when recruiting, let's make the box bigger and seek out these great soldiers in the numbers we need.

The US Army, which in 2005 fell 7,000 soldiers short of its recruiting goal, already has recruiters in American territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico. Why can't we expand our presence overseas to recruit foreign citizens who also possess higher educations and speak English? The idea is not as far-fetched as one might think. In an analogous effort, the Army Materiel Command stations teams around the globe to obtain new technologies to fulfill our materiel needs. The same principle can apply to satisfying our personnel requirements. We only accept the highest-grade technologies, and we would only recruit the highest-caliber people.

According to its annual Visa Office Report, the State Department issued over 5 million temporary (nonimmigrant) visas in 2005 to foreigners to come to America as businessmen, students, tourists, etc. Another 2 million requests, however, were refused.

Of those 2 million, 1.5 million applicants were refused entry not because of any crimes, illness, or undesirable behavior, but solely because they could not establish that they intended to return to their country of origin. In other words, they met our standards for being in America but couldn't prove they would only stay temporarily. Do you think we could have convinced half of 1 percent (7,000) among that 1.5 million people to come to our country and serve in our armed forces in exchange for the privilege to stay longer than temporarily? I wager we could have.

If the US Army placed one recruiting station in the capital of India, an English-speaking democracy of more than a billion people, we would have available a pool of enlistment-age adults equivalent to the entire population of the United States – more than 300 million men and women. Or, if we don't want to pay for a recruiting station in New Delhi, we could mail recruiting brochures to some of the 1 million foreign students who actually make it to America's colleges and institutes on temporary visas each year. Perhaps they would like to have their school debts paid along with guaranteed work.

Our nation historically grants preference for visas to people who bring valuable skills and talents to America. Skills that are in short supply. We should add a new category to the 27-plus preferences on the books – military recruit. The DOD could set the standards (educational, physical, linguistic, etc.) for the recruits, and Congress could authorize State and Defense officials to offer enlistment in our armed forces to up to 10,000 qualified visa applicants each year. The Army could seek out soldiers with valuable cultural and language capabilities. America could put recruiting shortages in its past, and the country would gain educated, legal, patriotic, new immigrants who, like immigrants before them, would do the work that many Americans won't – serve their country in its defense.

Retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan is a senior fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He served in Air Defense and Eurasian Foreign Area assignments for over 29 years. His most recent assignment was deputy director for Army Strategy, Plans, and Policy.

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