Moldovan immigrant in US trade military service for citizenship
By Maggie Hyde
Military recruits trade service for citizenship
Last year Michael Melnic’s U.S. visa was set to expire. But Melnic, 41, an immigrant from the small former Soviet country of Moldova, was not ready to leave.
A financial specialist who came to the U.S. in 2001 with his wife and daughter to earn a master’s degree in business, Melnic said that he and his family have built a life here in north suburban Chicago. One daughter, born after they relocated, is an American citizen. Both of his children, he said, speak more English at home than his native Russian.
“I was anxious,” he said. “My kids got Americanized. For them it would be very painful to come back.”
Three months before his visa expired, Melnic heard about a military program that could facilitate the citizenship process for him and his family. It would condense years of bureaucratic hurdles into a matter of months.
Known as the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, it is a pilot recruitment initiative that opened in February 2009 in New York and Los Angeles and in August in Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. The program reached its goal of 1,000 recruits nationlly and closes down this month. Available to legal aliens who had valuable language or medical skills, its goal, according to a military fact sheet, was to recruit soldiers “whose skills are considered to be vital to the national interest.”
During the program’s trial period, the local office enlisted 15 applicants, according to U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Boguslaw Jedrol of the Chicago Recruiting Battalion. Seven of the applicants speak Urdu, five Swahili and the remaining three speak Indonesian, Russian speaker and Arabic-Sudanese respectively.
Jedrol said the enlistees have a longer service commitment than other soldiers, four years rather than two. But they can achieve full citizenship in six months.
“Obviously,” he said, “this is a good benefit for someone.”
Dating back to the Revolutionary War, non-citizen soldiers have fought for and served in the U.S. Armed Forces. According to military statistics, about 8,000 legal aliens answer Uncle Sam’s call every year. Since Sept. 11, 2001, 43,000 soldiers have become citizens.
Melnic squeaked into the program the day before it closed. He will enter the service as a linguist, he said, who can speak both Russian and Romanian. But he also would like to be able to use his finance background as well. He is excited for what the future holds.
“I’m very proud,” he said. “I see a lot of opportunities.”
There was a good response to the initiative in the Chicago area, said Jedrol, adding that the program has been suspended so it can be tweaked for possible reinstatement. He said that the program’s closing had nothing to do with national security concerns after the shooting at Ft. Hood in November. Maj. Nidal Malik, the U. S. Army psychiatrist who opened fire and killed 12 people, was not an immigrant.
Response to the program has been great, said Melnic, because it is a way for educated, legal immigrants to gain citizenship status. After he joined, he said, he spent a lot of time on an Army online discussion board, which was bombarded with questions from other immigrants wanting to learn more about the program.
“It’s a huge interest,” he said.
Jedrol said applicants go through the same stringent process that regular enlistees face. In addition to tests, a background check and visa validation, applicants must also prove language proficiency. Melnic said he and other enlistees are not eligible for intelligence jobs until they become citizens.
“It’s a very scrutinizing process,” Jedrol said. “It takes a while to get someone in the army.”
Having lived in Moldova during the fall of the Soviet Union, Melnic said he wants to bring some of that experience with him to his new post. He sees the program as a way to combat the mistrust that often arises between local populations and U.S. forces stationed abroad.
“Our army will be stronger,” he said. “We’ll be better understood in all the parts of the world.”
Now, Melnic is exercising every day to prepare for basic training, which he starts in March. Besides being away from his family, he worries most about keeping up with the younger soldiers.
“My biggest concern,” he said, “is to be in good shape.”