Human Talent Is A National Resource: Interview with Margaret Stock

Conducted on February 9, 2015 by Byron Cohen CMC ‘16, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Transcribed by Gabe Magee PO ’20, Staff Writer


Margaret D. Stock is an immigration attorney based in Anchorage, Alaska, and a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve. She is a recognized expert on immigration law as it applies to US military personnel and veterans. Stock is a graduate of Harvard and Radcliffe colleges, Harvard Law School, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the U.S. Army War College. She has previously been a professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point and the University of Alaska. She was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow (“Genius Grant” recipient) in 2013. In 2016, Stock ran for the United States Senate as an independent candidate from Alaska.


CJLPP: Thank you for sitting down with us, Ms. Stock. I understand that the MAVNI program originated from one of your ideas. Could you talk about this program and the goals it seeks to accomplish?


[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in early 2015. The MAVNI program is currently suspended indefinitely and under review due to the potential security risks associated with the program, according to a Pentagon spokesman who spoke with CNN in mid July 2017. For more information, please refer to: and]


Stock: Sure. “MAVNI” is an acronym that stands for “Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest.” It’s a program to recruit highly skilled immigrants to the United States armed forces, and it’s basically a return to historical practice. You may not know this but the U.S. military has been recruiting immigrants since 1775. Then we kind of quit doing it for a while after the Vietnam War era, and the participation of immigrants in the military dropped off. As a result of this, after 9/11 we had a shortage of people in the military who spoke foreign languages.

The MAVNI program has two components – it recruits U.S.-licensed healthcare professionals, and people who speak strategic languages. There’s a shortage of both of these types of folks in the military. So what happens is that immigrants are given the opportunity to serve in the United States military, and in exchange, they get citizenship right away. They don’t have to wait. Most people can’t qualify for a green card these days, but if they do qualify, they have to wait an additional five years to get their citizenship. The typical immigrant, for example, who’s an F1 student attending Claremont McKenna College, is not going to be able to get a green card for probably about ten years, and will have to wait another five years to get American citizenship. By the time the person gets through that path, if they qualify – most of them don’t – they will probably be too old to join the military.

Under the MAVNI program, if you’re an F1 student at Claremont McKenna College, you qualify for the program if you speak a strategic language that the U.S. military is looking for, and you can join the active army or the Army Reserve to get your American citizenship right away. In exchange for this, you have to agree to serve a certain number of years of service. Everyone that joins the military today serves for at least eight years, but to keep your citizenship, you have to serve for at least five years out of those eight. Of course most people do the full eight, but it is five years if you want citizenship. And you get to serve in the Army, because the Army is the main branch recruiting the MAVNIs, as we call them.

That’s kind of the short version of the MAVNI program – it lets immigrants who are talented serve in the United States military. In exchange for that, they get citizenship. Not a green card. American citizenship. And the program has been very successful. It didn’t cost anything – which is always a good thing. It resulted in a number of notable achievements, including the 2012 U.S. Army Soldier Of The Year. He was a foreign student from Nepal and a Gurkha who dropped out of the University of Nebraska where he was studying computer science and instead joined the Army. He finished his degree with the help of the Army, so he does have a bachelor’s degree today. And once in the Army, he competed in this multi-level competition called the “Soldier Of The Year” competition, which he won in 2012. Then they sent him to Officer Candidate School, and he’s an officer now in the United States Army. So that’s just an example of one of the MAVNIs, but they’ve generally all been pretty successful.

And then the second program you mentioned was the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association Military Assistance program. It also has an acronym – we call it “AILAMAP.” This was a program that I confess I thought of in my own self-interest. After 9/11, I was one of the few attorneys in the country who had expertise in both military and immigration law. And because there was a war going on and because the military has a lot of immigration problems, I was getting inundated with requests for help from people. And you can kind of imagine the situation if you think about it – the U.S. military is deployed in more than 120 countries around the globe-military people don’t spend their evenings playing solitaire on their bunks, they go out and they meet people in the community. They fall in love and pretty soon you have one American soldier and he’s deployed overseas and he’s got a wife and kids and so forth, and he wants to bring them back to the United States. So the U.S. military has tremendous immigration problems. Not just soldiers in the ranks being immigrants, but mainly the families of service members serving overseas and they want to bring them back, these soldiers encounter an intensely bureaucratic system, and they often call for help.

I was getting all the phone calls from people saying “I can’t get my wife in the country, I can’t get my girlfriend in the country, I can’t get my wife’s mom in the country, you know, I can’t get my kids in the country, what do I do, help, help.” And I couldn’t handle all of their requests for help so I reached out to the American Immigration Lawyers Association and I said, “I know you have a lot of patriotic attorneys who are members of your association, are any of them interested in volunteering to help these military folks for free?” And the president of AILA thought this was a great idea, and immediately turned around and created the AILAMAP program with my help in the first year. So what it does – there are several hundred lawyers who volunteer for the program, and people can go online and sign up for a free lawyer. It matches them with one of the lawyers who volunteered. So we’ve had hundreds of cases to-date that we’ve helped people with. All kinds of different cases, you know – citizenship cases, fiancé cases, and “my spouse is getting deported” cases – pretty much every kind of immigration case you can think of. And the lawyers are all volunteers and it’s been very successful. That was the second program.

As for the third program – I can’t really take credit for it, though I kind of caused it to happen. Basic Training Naturalization is a program that existed in World War I. In World War I the U.S. army was about 18 percent immigrants, and most of the immigrants had just gotten off the boat. That was a period of high immigration to the United States – very high, historically high. These immigrants were coming to the United States, there was a war going on, Uncle Sam drafted them, and for complicated reasons related to international law, you didn’t want somebody who was German fighting against the German government, even if he was wearing a U.S. army uniform. You wanted that person to be an American citizen, because that meant he belonged to the United States and under international law he was American and so forth. So in World War I, about 18 percent of the people serving in the Army were immigrants, and so what the Army did was naturalize them at basic training. The same thing happened in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Later, everybody sort of forgot that they had done this, and so after 9/11 they weren’t doing basic training naturalization at all, even though it had been a traditional thing that had always happened in wartime for international law reasons.

The main thing I did was I reminded everybody that they had done this before and this was a traditional thing to do in wartime. Then I facilitated a process whereby the Department of Homeland Security was able to get the military to cooperate to do that. Homeland Security wanted to do basic training naturalizations but at first they weren’t able to get the military to cooperate. I was the officer that basically got the military to agree to do this. First the Army got on board, and once the Army got on board, the other services saw what was happening and they agreed to it, so there was a little bit of inter-service rivalry there. Today, there are four out of the five armed services that do basic training naturalization – the Army started it, the Navy went next, then the Air Force, and the Marine Corps was the last one. We’re still waiting for the Coast Guard. They’re an armed service but they’re part of the Department of Homeland Security. And ironically, they’re the only armed service that does not do basic training naturalization. They tell me the reason they don’t do it is that they don’t have very many immigrants. The way the program works is that Homeland Security actually has to put people at the basic training site to process the applications of the people who are trying to become citizens during basic training. They don’t think it’s worthwhile to put an officer at the Coast Guard basic training site because they only have a couple of people [who are immigrants].

The Coast Guard is the only armed force that is not participating in the program right now, ironically, even though it’s part of the Department of Homeland Security. Coast Guard trainees don’t get citizenship at the beginning of basic training, they get it when they’re about to graduate. So when they know they’re graduating, they report to basic training with their packets all ready to go, they get tested, they get interviewed, and all the security checks are done. When it’s clear that they’re going to graduate, that’s when they get their citizenship. So it’s actually a much more meaningful process for most people because basic training is a very emotional process. You’ve come through this very rigorous challenge, you’re really proud of yourself, you’re graduating, you’ve met all these requirements, and to also get your citizenship at that point in front of your family and friends with all of your buddies celebrating with you is really meaningful to people. It’s much more meaningful than the way the military has done it before, which was “hey, go to this bureaucratic office and take a test, and bam! You’re a citizen.” There wouldn’t be a big ceremony in many cases. So this is much more meaningful for the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.

CJLPP: Are there any other projects similar to those that you have described that you’re working on currently?


Stock: I’m still working on [the programs I’ve previously mentioned] because the MAVNI program has just been reauthorized and they made some changes to the program: they increased the quota for it, they’re recruiting more people. I still get inundated with a lot of questions about the program because immigrants want to hear about it and they’re surprised that you can get citizenship without getting a green card. So I’m constantly working on that. But as a civilian attorney, I also work for the military directly. I do training for a lot of the military lawyers. I just completed training Marine Corps lawyers on how to prevent marines from getting deported; I walked them through the immigration consequences of court-martials and administrative separations and stuff like that. And then I’m also working on a lot of immigration relief for military families.

If you follow the immigration debate right now, you probably know our illegal immigration system is kind of a mess. It’s very difficult for people to get any form of legal status in the United States today- the system is just broken. I worked on a program called “Parole and Place” for military families, – there’s kind of a bureaucratic hurdle that takes me a while to explain – you can be married to a soldier in the United States army today and not be able to get your green card because of this bureaucratic hurdle. So the “Parole and Place” program overcomes that bureaucratic hurdle to allow you to get a green card that you’re supposed to be qualified for, because you’re married to an American citizen. That program I’ve been working on for many years now and we’ve finally got Homeland Security to issue a memo formally acknowledging that the program existed. It existed informally before that, but we finally got to them to issue that memo in November 2013 saying “yes, we will do that for military families, we will get them their green cards here in the United States, they don’t have to leave the country to get a green card and wait ten years outside America.” So I’ve worked on that.

The third issue I’m working on now is focused on veterans who get deported. Now with basic training naturalization, we don’t think this is going to happen very often, but in the past, a lot of people served in the military and never got their citizenship. And then years later, there would be some that would have some problem with the law, maybe they got charged with a crime, they’d do their time, and the next thing they know, Homeland Security is trying to deport them. So we have a lot of military veterans who have been deported, mainly because they never got their citizenship. Sometimes it’s not even for a really serious crime. But the immigration laws are so complex that people run afoul of them easily, so I’m trying to work on legislation that would stop the deportation of military veterans who served honorably.

CJLPP: A lot of your work has been focusing on the linkages between immigration law and national security. Can you speak a little bit to the various areas where these fields intersect?


Stock: Absolutely, and I’m glad you asked that question, because it’s really important. Traditionally, after 9/11, people thought of national security and immigration in a very rigid way. They thought that security is best achieved by keeping people out of the United States, so let’s set up all these different ways to keep foreigners out of America. And it was kind of natural for people to think that way because on 9/11 we were attacked by foreigners who came from outside the United States and had penetrated our immigration system. Most of them, in fact all of them, came in lawfully. People were alarmed about this, and they said, “If we want to keep terrorist attacks from happening, we need to keep people out of the United States”- that was the kind of simple thinking. The way we’re gonna do that is we’re gonna put up all these barriers to people getting in, make it hard to get a visa, all these security checks and so forth. What they forgot was a fundamental strength of America – the people that have come to America from foreign countries. Immigration has been the power behind our economy, our superpower status – we would not be a superpower today were it not for our vibrant immigration system. People kind of forgot about that, so I guess what I kept trying to say to people was “you can’t think about national security as just keeping people out, you have to think about it as letting the right people in.” We need to be letting people in that are going to be building small businesses, be scientists, contribute to our economy and make our economy strong. We have to let people in who are going to be translators for our military. We can’t just be looking at immigration as a negative, rather than something that supports our superpower status. I tried to bring that into the debate and talk about how immigration is not a bad thing for America, it’s not a threat to our security, we just need to manage it in a way that enhances our security rather than impairing it.

CJLPP: In light of that, do you think that some of the immigration proposals put forward that focus extensively on border security and building walls and fences are focusing on the wrong aspect of national security?


Stock: Well, they’re not doing their cost/benefit analysis. I got a master’s degree in public administration and I studied economics and math for a very long time, so I’m really into cost/benefit analysis. I think you have to look at the big picture, and you’ve got to say, “how much money am I going to spend, and what kind of benefit am I going to get out of it?” We know from looking at other countries that try to fortify their borders that you don’t get security just from building walls and fortifying your borders. Look at North Korea. They don’t have security there. Why not? Because their economy’s shot. They can’t feed their people. They’re spending so much money on security that they’re very insecure as a people. So I think what we have to do is balance things. Now, I’m not an open borders advocate. I certainly think America needs to watch its borders and everything, but we want to be careful not to cut off the source of strength for our country by cutting off the good kind of immigration for our country, the kind of immigration that made our country free.

There’s another way I try to look at things, and I’ll try to give you an example, there’s a movie that’s about to come out. It may have released already in some markets-it’s called “Spare Parts”, and used to be called “La Vida Rupa.” It’s about four young men from Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona in the underwater robot competition, and they beat the MIT team. They were a high school team from a very underprivileged school in Arizona, but they won this underwater robot competition against MIT and a whole bunch of other colleges. The movie talks about this. It’s a fictional account of their story but it’s a real story, and there’s a documentary about their story called “underwater dreams.” To me, it makes no sense from a national security perspective to be deporting four young men who can win an underwater robot competition, I mean, I’m sorry, that just makes no sense. What you do when you deport those young men is you’re giving a foreign country four guys that know how to make robots for a living. That doesn’t help America’s national security. If we were smart, we would give those guys green cards, and let them join the Navy. They can probably contribute to the Navy’s scientific talent greatly because they know how to build underwater robots better than the people at MIT do. So that’s kind of the way I look at it. I don’t think it makes sense to deport a rocket scientist back to Venezuela. Why would we want to give Hugo Chavez a U.S. educated rocket scientist? That doesn’t help our national security, it helps his. You know, he could put that guy to work building rockets for him. So, that’s how we’re trying to get people to look at the issues, how human talent is a national resource. We used to think about national security in terms of people, geography, resources, and so forth, and we kind of forgot about the people part of it. We’re not focusing any more on the fact that having a very talented workforce that is young and can get things done is part of your national power. You need that. You don’t want a country that’s made solely up of elderly people, that’s not good for national security either. I don’t know, those are some thoughts. I’m a big proponent of the DREAM act, I think it’d be really great and helpful to national security to have lots of young people who can work legally in America, who are eligible to join the military, that would be a good thing.


CJLPP: Are there macro-level policy prescriptions that you would push for?


Stock: If I were in charge, which I’m not, I would simplify the legal immigration system. I think it’s a tremendous tragedy for America that you have to pay an immigration lawyer thousands of dollars and have a personal relationship with them. People like me make a lot of money from guiding people through this intensely bureaucratic system and I don’t think that’s in America’s interest either. I wish Congress would simplify it, kind of go back to the good old days when we had a pretty simple legal immigration system that people could comply with. It’s really hard to comply with it today. So I have been working with various legislators to try to simplify things in places where it makes sense.


CJLPP: So, from a big-picture perspective, what would your ideal immigration system look like?


Stock: I think we would have a system that would reward people who are going to contribute to America. We don’t do that today. We make it really difficult for people to immigrate; we have kind of random arbitrary criteria. For example, if you go to Claremont McKenna College, and you graduate with straight A’s and you write a terrific thesis in some topic area, why don’t we give you a green card if you want one, so you can stay in America and contribute to the United States of America? We don’t do that. Instead we say, you know, you’re a foreign student from name your country, I don’t know, India, and you get a degree from Claremont McKenna and you’re a superstar student. At the end of your career we say “get lost” and “go back to India.” We will give you a work permit for a year, and then we’ll tell you to try to find a U.S. employer who can sponsor you, but they’re going to have to pay thousands of dollars to the government and win the lottery for you if they want to keep you past the year, and so forth. Then you’re going to have to get them to apply for a green card, and then they’re going to go through this intensely bureaucratic process. About 15 years later, 20 years later, you might have a green card, even though you are tremendously talented, and were at the top of your class at Claremont McKenna. I don’t think that makes any sense. Things like giving people green cards when they graduate from America’s top colleges would be good. And that’s pretty simple.


CJLPP: Do you think that should be particularly oriented towards STEM fields?


Stock: Well we do have a program right now to grant extra permission to people in STEM fields, but I wouldn’t necessarily limit it to STEM fields alone. There are lots of people out there who don’t major in STEM fields (as the government defines them) that can contribute. If you’re asking for out of the box ideas, another idea I think that would be real easy to do that would help America a lot is: if you’re illegally here in the United States right now, we’ll give you a green card, but you have got to go buy a piece of property in Detroit, Michigan and live there for five years. I mean, if they did that, and it’s within the power of congress to do, Detroit wouldn’t be bankrupt anymore. They’d have a vibrant population, they’d have a wonderful community up there. People would go live there and buy a house if they would get a green card for doing it. Why not do that? Detroit needs people. They’d be paying taxes, they’d be paying property taxes, going to school. And I am sure people would do it if they did that. This would relieve the stress on California, too.


CJLPP: I bet. Do you perceive any obvious vulnerabilities with respect to the way our immigration law interacts with our national security?


Stock: One big vulnerability is that the system is way too complicated, and any time you have extremely complicated bureaucratic systems, you have failure, structural failures, that cause people to slip through the cracks. That’s another reason why I think simplifying things would be easier. We build all these giant databases and we have all these rules, and if you break a rule, we spend a huge amount of effort to kick you out of the country, although it might not be a rule that makes any sense. When you’re spending too much time on people who are not a threat, you miss the threats. I think one of the things we could do that could enhance national security would be to take all the people who aren’t a threat out of the security apparatus. Don’t waste all our time trying to deport grandmothers that didn’t file the right paperwork on time or something, they’re probably not a threat to our national security. Why are we spending all of our resources on them?


CJLPP: So, in the coming years, what direction do you expect American immigration law to move? Do you think we will see a comprehensive immigration reform, and if so, what might that look like?


Stock: I’m absolutely sure we’re going to get it eventually. It’s just a question of what year we get it. The reason I’m sure about this is demographics. We just can’t afford to not have comprehensive immigration reform. Eventually it’s going to be patently obvious to everybody in America that we need to have immigration reform. Right now there are still a few people who don’t realize how bad our demographics are looking right now, but sooner or later it’s going to come to face, and when it does everybody’s going to say “Why didn’t we think of this before?” We have a rapidly aging population right now. Without immigration, we are not replacing our population. Native-born Americans aren’t having enough babies to provide the workers for the future, so we’re going to have to rely on immigrants, it’s a fact. The immigrants are the ones having the babies in America that are causing us to not lose out demographically. So in 2050, we will have a tremendous core of over eighty-year olds who probably are not going to want to work but who are going to want to tap into social security and other entitlement programs. And if we don’t pay attention to these demographics, we’re just going to go bankrupt as a country trying to pay for all of those folks. The only way to do it is to bring in lots of younger workers who are going to pay into the system. We need to start thinking about that as a country before we end up like Italy and Japan, who are having tremendous problems right now. The military is also going to be hurt with not enough young people. Eighty-year-olds usually don’t want to shoulder a pack and a rifle with the infantry.


CJLPP: Thank you so much for your time. We are really grateful to have the opportunity to interview you.


Leave a Reply