After President Donald Trump released his Jan. 27 executive order suspending people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S, the first call Anchorage immigration attorney Margaret Stock got was from a U.S Special Forces soldier whose father was trapped outside the country.
The soldier was an American citizen, his father a legal permanent resident. The soldier was born in Yemen, and as a native speaker of the local language was considered very valuable to Special Forces, Stock said during a talk about immigration on Thursday at the Soldotna Public Library.
“Now he was being told his father wasn’t allowed back in the United States because the President of the United States, his Commander in Chief, had ordered an across-the-board ban on anybody from his country of heritage coming to the U.S,” Stock said. “When the order was issued there was no sort of evaluation of whether the individual being banned was some kind of threat to the security of the United States.”
Stock drew on many areas of expertise during her presentation, which she’d been invited to give by Many Voices, a discussion and action group that organized after the local March for Women demonstration in January. As a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Military Police Corps and winner of a 2013 McArthur Grant for a program to recruit immigrants with desirable skills into the armed forces, Stock spoke on the past and present importance of immigrants to national security and wellbeing. From her present legal work at the Anchorage office of Cascadia Cross Border Law, she gave a picture of what unauthorized immigration looks like in Alaska, and of the disturbance created by the travel bans.
Stock’s work for the Department of Defense on the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) recruitment program was part of what she described as a post-9/11 trend of seeking immigrants and refugees for military recruitment. “On Sept. 11, 2001, the participation of immigrants in the military was at its lowest level ever, historically — less than 4 percent of the military was immigrant,” Stock said. “In World War I in contrast, 20 percent of the military was immigrant.”
Military service has long been a path to U.S citizenship, Stock said. She described a history reaching from the German-American regiments in George Washington’s army to the present, mentioning leaders such as the Georgian-born Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and the unauthorized Mexican immigrant Alfred Rascon, who earned a Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War and served as Director of Selective Service.
However, the peace-time military that existed prior to 9/11 was open only to U.S citizens and legal permanent residents — also known as green card-holders, a status hard to obtain under the increasingly convoluted system of legal immigration, Stock said. This created a situation where “there were millions of people in the country who were of military age and wanted to join the military — and they couldn’t, because they didn’t have green cards and couldn’t get them. Many were here legally.”
This lack led to intelligence failures, since many military translators were native English speakers who learned their specialty languages as adults. After the attacks, the intelligence need for fluent speakers — particularly of Middle Eastern languages — became apparent. Demographic trends such as the aging of the native-born U.S. population also made immigrants attractive recruitment targets, Stock said.
A 2009 report she wrote for the Immigration Policy Center details military measures to enlist immigrants and encourage the help of foreign residents. In 2002 President George W. Bush used a wartime authority to make active duty service members, including the undocumented, eligible for expedited citizenship. In 2006 Congress gave the military authority to waive the citizenship requirement for enlistment if doing so is “vital to the national interest” — a change that made the MAVNI program possible. Also in 2006, Congress established a yearly quota of special immigrant visas for translators from Iraq and Afghanistan, which varied between 50 and 500 in 2006 through fiscal 2009. The Department of Defense was authorized to give 5,000 special immigrant visas to Iraqi employees, contractors, and their families between fiscal 2008 and 2012. A similar program existed in Afghanistan. The Army bought Arabic-language recruiting advertisements during the 2006 soccer World Cup.
By 2009, 7.91 percent of active duty military personnel were foreign-born, according to Stock’s report. Now, a decade and a half after 9/11, she said their place in the military is different.
“Special Forces have lots of former refugees,” Stock said. “The Navy SEALs like to recruit former refugees. Why? If you’re going into a country and you don’t speak the language, and you’re trying to work with the locals, to carry out U.S national security objectives, it’s really important to understand the local culture and local language.”
With today’s military making heavy use of immigrants, refugees, and local allies, Stock said the January travel ban had a hard impact on the military personnel and their families.
In the case of the Yemen-born Special Forces soldier, his father was able to enter the country during a restraining order against the Jan. 27 travel ban. After a U.S district court ruling against the executive order, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would stop enforcing it. On March 8, Trump issued a revised version that left Iraq off the list of excluded nationalities, and contained a number of other exceptions that led Stock to describe it as “not really an across-the-board ban anymore — really more of a ‘let’s-not-and-say-we-did’ sort of thing.”
“I could drive a train through most of these exceptions,” she said. She believes many were prompted by feedback from dissatisfied military leaders.
Calls for her legal services are not only from military members.
“The first people calling me were oilfield workers,” Stock said. “Because it turns out that in Alaska we have a lot of people working for oil and gas companies who happen to be born in Libya.”
Libya is one of the banned-entry nations listed in both the original and revised executive orders. It has large oil reserves and has long attracted investment from Western companies such as ConocoPhillips.
Stock described a group of Libyan immigrant professionals in Alaska whom she said don’t fit the popular image of a poor immigrant using social services while avoiding taxes — rather they are high-salaried taxpayers who contribute to projects that employ U.S citizens.
“They haven’t been back to Libya for 20 years, but they’re working on a professional worker visa for name-your-big-oil-company,” she said. “The big oil company has sponsored them and they’re the IT worker, the oilfield engineer or whatever. They have a lot of experience because Libya’s an oil country. They got their skills in their home country but haven’t lived there in forever, and now all of a sudden they’re banned from the United States and can’t travel internationally. They can’t go to an oil and gas meeting in London, they can’t go anywhere. All I can tell them is don’t ‘travel internationally and file for asylum.’”
Others unable to leave and re-enter the country were students and professors at the University of Alaska, tech workers, and foreign-born spouses of American citizens. Stock said many of Alaska’s unauthorized immigrants entered legally with visas and for various reasons overstayed them.
This also the case in the rest of the U.S: a 2017 Center for Migration Studies report found that about two thirds of unauthorized arrivals in 2014 were not illegal border crossings but visa-overstays, which have exceeded illegal border crossings every year since 2007.
“I can describe the typical overstay in Alaska — I’ve handled a number of these cases,” Stock said. “Someone comes in on a fiancé visa and for 90 days they have permission to be in the United States. They marry the American citizen who sponsored them, and two days later he gets killed in a workplace accident. The wife is an illegal immigrant because her husband died before he could file papers. Or somebody got battered by an American citizen who brought them into the country and the American citizen doesn’t want to file papers for them. I just represented a woman in Anchorage who was married, had two kids with a guy that got kicked out of the National Guard and was a registered sex offender. He wouldn’t sponsor his wife and couldn’t, actually… He kicked her out of the house and she was illegally in the U.S for about 18 months trying to take care of her kids, living in shelters. That’s an illegal immigrant, and that’s a really typical story in Alaska. We have a lot of that. We have this idea that illegal immigrants are people who snuck over the border in the middle of the night, but most are people whose papers went bad somehow.”
She concluded with an appeal for the audience members to continue talking and learning about the subject.
“America is a nation of immigrants,” Stock said. “That’s how we became a superpower. If we decide we’re going to turn our backs on our heritage and cut off people from certain countries just because they came from those countries, we’re only shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s not going to do us any good in the long run… It’s one thing to be afraid, but you have to be logical in your fears and figure out the things you can do to help your security, not the things that are going to backfire and hurt your security through your fear.”
In the question and answer session following the presentation, Stock had a consistent answer to those who asked “what can we do?” She encouraged concerned audience members to write letters, postcards, and emails to Alaska’s congressional representatives, and to arrange face-to-face meetings with them or their staff.
One of the last audience questions was related to Stock’s unsuccessful run for the U.S Senate in 2016, when she challenged sitting Sen. Lisa Murkowski as an independent candidate.
“Will we see your name on the ballot again?” a listener asked.
“I don’t know,” Stock answered. “Because right now I am really busy. It’s kind of crazy right now.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.