Outside editorial: Immigrants give U.S. its winning edge

Posted: Friday, February 27, 2009

The war in Iraq had been under way for years before U.S. military commanders realized that conventional combat tactics weren't working and that a counter-insurgency strategy was necessary. The tide turned in America's favor with the new strategy, now commonly associated with the "surge." The new strategy relied more on intelligence, human resources and integration with the Iraqi population than on bombs, assaults and fighting.

It is clear that more of America's future wars will be fought and won using human and intelligence resources. This is one of the many reasons the Pentagon's decision to expand its recruitment of immigrants with special skills is a good idea. A pilot program offered for the first time since the Vietnam War will create a fast-track to U.S. citizenship for skilled immigrants who are in the country on temporary visas.

Immigrants who are permanent residents (those with green cards) already are eligible to use their military service as a pathway to citizenship. Extending this benefit to immigrants with temporary visas is a win-win proposition. The military traditionally has struggled to recruit enough doctors, nurses, language experts and other people with specialized skills whose services are needed in places like Afghanistan, Somalia or the Middle East. It just so happens that many immigrants with temporary visas are in the country working as doctors, nurses and in other specialized fields. So the program will serve the needs of both the military and immigrants.

The program will boost operations in places where language and specialized skills are essential for success.

For immigrants, the program will streamline the citizenship process and eliminate bureaucratic red tape that can take a decade or longer, and even then, not be successful. For the military, the program will boost operations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan where language and specialized skills are essential for success.

Some military officers and veterans have criticized the program, saying it could compromise national security. They worry that those who participate in it could be exploited, even if unwittingly, by terrorist groups. They demand that applicants be subjected to rigorous screening and be required to pledge their allegiance to the United States "over and above any ties they may have to their native country." There is some merit to these concerns, but a loyalty oath is unnecessary.

The program requires that immigrant applicants be in the country a minimum of two years. To qualify for temporary visas, immigrants cannot have a criminal record and have already passed rigorous screening. As with any program, the military would need to be vigilant about possible national security breaches. The Pentagon will have a year to work out any kinks in the pilot phase of the program.

"The Army will gain its strength in human capital," Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, the Army's chief recruitment officer, said in an interview with The New York Times. "And the immigrants will gain their citizenship and get on a ramp to the American dream."

America's future, like its past, is intricately interwoven with immigrants. The contributions of immigrants has allowed America to tap the resources of diverse population groups to its advantage. This is a winning combination that we mustn't abandon.

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