The state of the recruitment crisis

The U.S. armed forces are on the precipice of a long-term recruitment disaster. Nearly every military branch has failed to meet its recruitment targets for fiscal year (FY) 2023. In total, the armed forces are expected to come short of nearly 20,000 service members across five branches–a troubling sign of an enlistment drought years in the making that some officials expect to get worse.

There are myriad possible causes for the steep decline. Abstract factors like a decline in patriotism and civil trust and economic trends like a tight labor market and increasing rates of college attainment likely play a role. Eligibility factors exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, like an uptick in SSRI medication usage, lower levels of academic aptitude, and increasing rates of obesity, are also possible contributors. 

Considering all of these potential factors, a mere 23% of potential military recruits are actually eligible for service–the lowest rate in modern history. This will very likely bear significant consequences on our military readiness. The Army has been forced to cut its active-duty numbers to 466,000 from 476,000. Even more troubling, specialized roles are particularly at risk of being left unfilled. In recent years, some cyber units in the Army were only operating at 55% capacity, and the Air Force has a shortage of over 2,000 pilots.

Given the challenges within the domestic recruitment pool, drawing more from non-citizens residing in America may be a viable solution. However, recent policy changes and a lack of innovative approaches complicate this potential strategy.

The state of immigrant service members

To serve in the U.S. military, immigrant recruits must be legally and permanently (through an I-551 or Permanent Residence Card) present in the United States, have work authorization and at least a high school diploma or GED, and speak English. Immigrants can become naturalized through military service after one year of honorable service during peacetime or immediately during a “period of hostility,” such as the Global War on Terror. 

An estimated 45,000 foreign-born service members are in the armed forces, with roughly 5,000 joining annually. According to naturalization data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the most frequent countries of origin for naturalized service members since 2018 are the Philippines, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, and China. 

Until the onset of the Trump administration, one of the most critical ways immigrants were recruited into the military was through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program (MAVNI). This program was instituted by the Bush administration in 2008 to entice immigrants with valuable language or technical skills. Despite its success, the program was indefinitely suspended by the Trump administration in 2016 over unfounded concerns that servicemembers recruited through MAVNI posed security risks. The Trump administration also took several steps to sever military service from citizenship, which the Biden administration has attempted to reverse by encouraging service members to naturalize. As a result, military naturalizations have also steadily increased in 2021 and 2022, ending with a five-year high of 10,640.

The solutions

There are concrete and feasible steps the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the military can take to allow potential immigrant service members to bolster our rapidly falling recruitment numbers.

First, the Biden administration should reinstate the MAVNI program. The rationale for suspending it was flawed, and the armed forces are now in a position of even greater need for specialized service members. To that end, the reinstated program should include competency in cyber operations and artificial intelligence as qualifying grounds for recruitment through MAVNI. Both of these skills are in high demand and may help incentivize migrants with these skills to enlist. The Federation of American Scientists has written a thorough overview detailing this proposal. 

Before it was suspended, the MAVNI program cap was raised from 1,500 to 5,000 recruits. This cap should be the starting point for the program, with plans to increase it each year if the cap is met. If reinstated, MAVNI should also include DACA recipients as eligible candidates, a provision first added in 2016. 

Congress can also help DACA recipients by passing the Fight for the American Dream Act, introduced by Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego. This bill would allow DACA recipients to enlist in the military and receive a pathway to permanent residency if they are determined to have served honorably. Almost 580,000 DACA recipients live in the U.S., many of whom likely meet the eligibility requirements for service and would enthusiastically take the opportunity to join. 

Finally, the military could fine-tune its recruitment efforts for immigrants who are already eligible to enlist. This could entail a more specific recruitment practice advertising the benefits of enlistment for immigrants. It may also consider a language proficiency camp if language barriers prevent immigrants from enlisting. The military has specialized programs to help applicants overcome physical readiness and scholastic aptitude barriers. Establishing programs aimed at English language instruction may prove a worthwhile investment in increasing recruitment numbers. 


Despite some concern among critics that allowing non-citizens to join the armed forces poses a security risk, robust safeguards are already in place to prevent that threat from becoming a reality. Immigrant service members cannot serve as officers or any other role requiring a security clearance. Such safeguards remain until recruits become citizens. 

As economist Tim Kane has exhaustively detailed in his book, immigrants often disproportionately receive commendations for valor. They have been a critical part of our military since its inception, and our aim should be to make it easier for them to serve, not harder.

At the current pace, the recruiting crisis will only worsen. Simultaneously, there is a vast pool of possible immigrant applicants who are willing to help by joining the armed forces. Not allowing them to do so would be a policy failure with implications that will reverberate for years to come.