SUSANNE M. SCHAFER
SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) -- Carolyne Chelulei came to the United States from Kenya on a student visa for a college education, but now the Army is offering her the chance to stay for good as a citizen.
The 23-year-old is one of several hundred immigrants whose specialized skills, either in languages or in their professional background, make them eligible for a Pentagon program that repays service in uniform with an accelerated path to citizenship.
"I am excited about it," Chelulei said while visiting in her recruiter's office. "I like helping people, and I think I will be a great asset to America, to the Army."
As debate swirls in Washington about changing the nation's policies on immigration, the Army is going ahead with offering some legal immigrants living temporarily in the U.S. a path to citizenship if they can fill certain critical jobs.
It is formally known by a mouthful of Pentagon-speak: Military Accession Vital to the National Interest, or MANVI. The Army began the program on a one-year trial basis in 2009, recruiting 789 soldiers with language skills and 143 health care professionals, said Maj. Carol Stahl, the Army program's manager in the Pentagon. Since the program re-opened at the end of September 2012, 451 linguists have enlisted in the Army with 28 different languages, as well as 19 dentists and three physicians, she said.
While immigrants have long chosen military service as a way to qualify for citizenship, the new program was developed to speed up the process for specialties the military needs during times of conflict. That makes it easier to bring in medical professionals as officers, a rank where non-citizens cannot serve, or to pursue security clearances that non-citizens would also not qualify for.
Immigrants who qualify and agree to serve for a variable number of years can get on a fast track to citizenship. The process can be completed within weeks of putting on a uniform if they meet the multiplicity of requirements, officials say. The program is being used primarily by the Army, the nation's largest service. Other service braches could, but aren't doing so at present, Stahl said.
All those in the program serve some combination of duty for eight years, Stahl said.
People who enlist like Cheluei must agree to serve four years in active duty, and then may serve an additional four years as part of the reserves. While usually considered an inactive status, people can be recalled to full-time duty, as happened during the Iraq conflict. Doctors, however, enter as officers. They may choose between three years of active duty or six years in the reserves, and then another two in the inactive reserves.
All have the option to make a career of the military if they choose and remain for 20 years to reach retirement if they have a good service record, Stahl said.
"There are many qualifications for this program," said Army recruiting spokesman Leslie Ann Sully. "It's not for everyone. The positions, and languages we are looking for, can change from time to time."
Chelulei, who attended the University of South Carolina Upstate on a cross country scholarship, has what the Army is looking for: a college degree, excellent English as well as two African languages, and the willingness to serve at least four years in uniform as a behavioral health specialist and psychiatrist's aide.
She also had been in the United States legally for more than two years, had excellent scores on her Army entry exams and passed all security checks.
Among other skills, the military is looking for linguists who can speak dozens of languages. They can range from Chinese to Czech, Albanian to Uzbek, as well as Persian Dari, Farsi, Arabic or Yoruba, spoken in western Africa.
Chelulei says her family spoke Kalenjin in her Kenyan hometown of Eldoret, and she learned English and Swahili in elementary and secondary school. She was recruited for her willingness to enter the health care field, not her languages. But to the Army, the fact she is trilingual is a plus.
In health care fields, the Army also is seeking dentists, psychiatrists, several types of physicians, nurses and clinical social workers.
Miami physician Marco Ladino Avellaneda was born in Bogota, Columbia, and came to the United States on a visa to study medicine. Now, he is a major in the Army Reserves and a kidney specialist at the veterans' Medical Center in downtown Miami.
After joining the Army Reserves, Ladino Avelleneda got his citizenship papers in a month instead of the 10 years he expected, he said in a telephone interview. And he just completed a four-month deployment to Kosovo.