The lanky 19-year-old from South Korea has lived in the Southland since he was 9 years old. He is as comfortable speaking English as his native Korean. And he desperately wants to join the Army.
Late last week, the teenager walked into a recruiting office in an Eagle Rock mall wearing a pendant shaped like a dog tag around his neck. Until recently, local recruiters would have had to turn him away. His student visa would not have qualified him to enlist. Only citizens or permanent residents who carry green cards were eligible to serve.
But starting today, 10 Los Angeles-area Army recruiting offices will begin taking applications from some foreigners who are here on temporary visas or who have been granted asylum.
In all, the pilot program, which was launched in New York in February, seeks to enlist 1,000 military recruits with special language and medical skills, most of whom will join the Army. Response to the program has exceeded expectations, drawing applications from more than 7,000 people around the country, many of them highly educated, defense officials said.
Those who are accepted will get an expedited path to citizenship in return for their service. “Ever since I entered high school, I was waiting for this opportunity,” Jason, the 19-year-old aspiring soldier, told recruiters as they helped him prepare documents to submit today. “As soon as it came, I just jumped.”
The Army requested that applicants’ full names not be used because, in some cases, it could put them or family members at risk in their home countries.
Although the Army has been meeting or exceeding its recruiting goals, defense officials say there is a shortage of soldiers with medical, foreign language and cultural abilities needed in the war on terror and peacekeeping efforts around the world.
“What we’re looking for are critical, vital skills,” said Naomi Verdugo, assistant deputy for recruiting in the office of the assistant secretary of the Army.
The Army hopes to enlist 333 healthcare professionals, including doctors, dentists, nurses and others. It is also looking for 557 people with any of 35 languages, including Arabic and Yoruba, spoken in West Africa. Spanish is not on the list. An additional 110 slots are earmarked for other services, which have not yet started taking applications for the program.
Although the effort is limited in scope, it has raised concerns among some veterans groups and advocates for tighter immigration controls. They question whether the policy shift could pave the way for large numbers of foreigners, including ones who might have entered the U.S. illegally, to join the armed services.
“By aggressively recruiting foreigners abroad, or illegal immigrants who could use such a program to get legalized, we could easily create a situation where the Pentagon comes to rely on cheap foreign labor,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
“That’s not where we are now. . . . But we always need to be careful that we don’t start going down a steep, slippery slope.”
Defense officials emphasize that the program is only open to foreigners who have lived legally in the U.S. for at least two years, including students, some professionals and refugees.
Those who enlist are required to meet the same physical and conduct standards as other recruits and exceed the educational standards. They are also vetted by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, and they will not be granted waivers for any criminal offenses.
Foreign-born residents have a long history in the U.S. armed forces.
Under a wartime statute invoked in 2002, those who serve can apply for citizenship on the first day of active duty. Naturalization fees are waived. About 29,000 people with green cards are in the military and about 8,000 enlist each year, according to Pentagon figures.
Recruiters have already signed up 105 people with targeted languages and two medical professionals under the new program.
More than 60% of those enlisting under the pilot program have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with roughly 7% of those joining the Army through regular channels.
Their average score on a required math and verbal aptitude test is 79 out of a possible 99 points. That’s compared with 62 for the average citizen or permanent resident who enlisted in the Army in the 12 months ending in September.
As word of the New York pilot program spread, many people traveled across the country to apply.
The 107 enlisted so far include 13 California residents, officials said. Less than half came from the New York area, including New Jersey.
Jason was among those who traveled to New York. But he arrived so tired after an overnight flight that he failed to score the minimum 50 points on a sample aptitude test.
By extending the program to Los Angeles, Army officials hope to make it easier for applicants on the West Coast to be considered and to ease the pressure on New York recruiters.
They also want to reach a broader range of language experts. So far, most of the recruits have been Korean, Indian and Chinese language speakers. The Army needs more people with languages used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, among others. Only four of the recruits enlisted as Arabic speakers, one speaks Urdu and one speaks Punjabi.
Staff Sgt. Joshua Cannon, who commands the recruiting station where Jason is applying, is pleased to be able to sign up more aspiring Americans. The policy restricting applications to people with green cards has been a source of frustration to local recruiters, who have struggled for years to find qualified applicants in a city with many immigrants, especially when the country is at war.
Cannon said his office had been getting calls about the new program for months. For most of the callers, the biggest draw is the chance to become citizens in as little as six months, he said. The normal naturalization process can take five to 15 years.
To retain their citizenship, participants must honorably complete at least five years of service.
When Jason heard he could apply closer to home, he headed straight over. This time he scored a respectable 67 on the sample aptitude test.
After 10 years of living with the uncertainty of temporary visas, he too is hoping to finally become an American.
His mother, who raised two children alone, never bothered to apply for green cards for the family, so now he faces the possibility of being summoned back to South Korea for mandatory military service.
Jason is also looking for a way to complete his studies at Pasadena City College.
His mother’s grocery store is struggling, so he had to defer for two semesters after his first year to help keep the business going. Although his mother worries that Jason could be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, he will not be dissuaded.
“I would have to go to the army in Korea anyway, so let’s make it count for something,” he said. “A new life. A new beginning.”
This story was reported and written in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, a nonprofit news organization. Andrew Becker is a CIR staff reporter. Alexandra Zavis is a Times staff writer.