Immigration Law

Good Citizenship

"“I’m not in a powerful position,” says Margaret Stock MPA 2001. “All I can do are the little things I’m capable of doing.” Even so, those little things have added up to a lot—specifically, a program that has the potential to change the lives of thousands of immigrants. Stock’s brainchild is the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, better known by its acronym, MAVNI. Since 2008, the program has expedited the path to American citizenship for legal aliens with special language and cultural skills, and those trained as health-care professionals, by allowing them to enlist in the U.S. military. Stock’s contribution was recognized by a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” last fall.

“The one thing that really bothers me about the U.S. immigration system is the complexity that we’ve built up, because it’s entirely unnecessary,” says Stock, an immigration lawyer based in Anchorage, Alaska, who also served for 28 years in the military police, retiring in 2010 as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves. “It’s a function of politics, and it doesn’t serve our national interest.”

It’s typical to think of national security and immigration as a matter of keeping “bad” people out of the United States, says Stock, who also holds undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard. But it’s much more about letting the right people in, she says, particularly when one considers the overwhelming demographic trend of an aging population.

“The debate around immigration hasn’t always been rational,” Stock says. “When you show people the data—which is something I learned to do at the Kennedy School—they calm down and realize that we have to do something about this issue, and that the only way we can address it is through the traditional path of immigration.”

Stock came to immigration law by chance; after settling into a stable career as a civil litigator, she took a pro bono immigration case, having been told it would be “easy” because the defendant’s case was hopeless. Four hundred hours later, she had sued the government, won the case, and forced the INS to drop charges against her client.

The practical, dogged, yet creative approach Stock has brought to winning cases over the years is evident when she describes how the idea for MAVNI first came about: “It was feasible and acceptable. This population was legally present in the United States; they were trying to enlist and being turned away at a time when we were experiencing a shortage of military personnel. Authorizing legally present people to enlist seemed doable.”

When MAVNI was announced, 15,000 applicants vied for just 890 Army spots. “The program is successful because the legal immigration system is broken,” says Stock. “People see MAVNI as a way to serve their country and save themselves years of heartache, bureaucracy, and thousands of dollars in lawyers’ fees.” She adds that the numbers show that on average those serving through MAVNI outrank native forces in a number of areas, from entry-level test scores to retention rates after two years of service. Many arrive with advanced degrees; one year, although they represented only 1,000 of 70,000 new enlistees in the Army, MAVNI participants held two-thirds of the master’s degrees.

Stock hopes to make the program permanent (it is due to expire in 2014) through the Military Enlistment Opportunity Act, a statute she has consulted on with the bill’s sponsor, Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado. Stock credits much of MAVNI’s quick, successful implementation to what she learned at the Kennedy School. “Sometimes I had five minutes to pitch the idea to a very busy public official. Data, analytics—you’ve got to know your math.” It’s those little things again, all adding up, that have the power to create change, even in immigration law, even in an institution as large and powerful as the Pentagon." - Harvard Kennedy School Magazine, Winter 2014.