Delayed, now discharged: Army move jeopardizes future of immigrant recruits
By MARTHA MENDOZA AND GARANCE BURKE | Associated Press | Published: July 5, 2018
SAN ANTONIO — Some immigrant U.S. Army reservists and recruits who enlisted in the military with a promised path to citizenship are being abruptly discharged.
Immigration attorneys say they know of more than 40 in the special recruitment program known as MAVNI who have been discharged or whose status has become questionable, jeopardizing their futures.
“It was my dream to serve in the military,” said reservist Lucas Calixto, a Brazilian immigrant who filed a lawsuit against the Army last week in hopes of undoing the discharge, alleging the Defense Department hadn’t given him a chance to defend himself or appeal. He said he was given no specific grounds other than “personnel security.”
Some of the servicemembers say they were not told why they were being discharged. Others who pressed for answers said the Army informed them they’d been labeled as security risks because they have relatives abroad or because the Defense Department had not completed background checks on them.
Officials at the Pentagon and the Army said that, due to the pending litigation, they were unable to explain the discharges or respond to questions about whether the policy has been changed.
More than 10,000 immigrants enlisted under the recruitment program before it was halted in late 2016 when the Department of Defense determined that MAVNIs posed “counterintelligence and security risks” and instituted lengthy security screenings for every recruit in the program. Authorization for the program expired in September 2017. The Pentagon cited the logjam in security clearances; it’s unclear whether the program will be reinstated.
The servicemembers affected by the discharges enlisted in recent years under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program aimed at attracting medical specialists and fluent speakers of 44 sought-after languages. The idea, according to the Defense Department, was to “recognize their contribution and sacrifice.”
In 2002, President George W. Bush ordered “expedited naturalization” for immigrant soldiers in an effort to swell military ranks. Seven years later, MAVNI became an official recruiting program.
Eligible recruits were required to have legal status in the U.S., such as a student visa, before enlisting. To become citizens, the servicemembers needed an honorable service designation, which can come after even just a few days at boot camp. But the recently discharged servicemembers have had their basic training delayed, so they can’t be naturalized.
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Alaska and a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who helped create the MAVNI program, said she’s been inundated over the past several days by recruits who have been abruptly discharged.
All had signed enlistment contracts and taken an Army oath, Stock said.
Many were reservists who had been attending unit drills, receiving pay and undergoing training, while others had been in a “delayed entry” program, she said.
“Immigrants have been serving in the Army since 1775,” Stock said. “We wouldn’t have won the revolution without immigrants. And we’re not going to win the global war on terrorism today without immigrants.”
The program came under fire from conservatives when President Barack Obama added DACA recipients — young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally — to the list of eligible enlistees. In response, the military layered on additional security clearances for recruits to pass before heading to boot camp.
President Donald Trump added more hurdles, creating a backlog within the Defense Department. Last fall, hundreds of recruits still in the enlistment process had their contracts canceled.
Stock said the discharged servicemembers she’s heard from had been told the Defense Department had not completed extensive background checks, which include CIA, FBI and National Intelligence Agency screenings and counterintelligence interviews. Therefore, by default, they do not meet the background check requirement.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.
‘Treated like trash’
Calixto and several recruits from Pakistan and Iran all said they were devastated by their unexpected discharges.
“Now the great feeling I had when I enlisted is going down the drain,” said Calixto, 28. “I don’t understand why this is happening.”
Calixto, who lives in Massachusetts and came to the U.S. when he was 12, said in an email interview arranged through his attorney that he joined the Army out of patriotism.
“Since this country has been so good to me, I thought it was the least I could do to give back to my adopted country and serve in the United States military,” he said.
In the suit filed in Washington, Calixto said he learned he was being kicked out soon after he was promoted to private second class.
A Pakistani servicemember said he learned in a phone call a few weeks ago that his military career was over.
“There were so many tears in my eyes that my hands couldn’t move fast enough to wipe them away,” he said. “I was devastated, because I love the U.S. and was so honored to be able to serve this great country.”
He asked that his name be withheld because he fears he might be forced to return to Pakistan, where he could face danger as a former U.S. Army enlistee.
Portions of the 22-year-old’s military file reviewed by the Associated Press said he was so deeply loyal to the U.S. that his relationships with his family and fiancee in Pakistan would not make him a security threat. Nonetheless, the documents show the Army cited those foreign ties as a concern.
The man had enlisted in April 2016 anticipating he’d be a citizen within months, but faced a series of delays. He had been slated to ship out to basic training in January 2017, but that also was delayed.
An Iranian citizen who came to the U.S. for a graduate degree in engineering said he enlisted in the program hoping to gain medical training.
He said he had felt proud that he was “pursuing everything legally and living an honorable life.”
In recent weeks, he said, he learned that he’d been discharged.
“It’s terrible because I put my life in the line for this country, but I feel like I’m being treated like trash,” he said. “If I am not eligible to become a U.S. citizen, I am really scared to return to my country.”
He spoke on condition of anonymity because of those fears.
It’s unclear how the servicemembers’ discharges could affect their status as legal immigrants.
In a statement, the Defense Department said: “All servicemembers (i.e. contracted recruits, active duty, Guard and Reserve) and those with an honorable discharge are protected from deportation.”
However, attorneys say that many immigrants let go in recent weeks received an “uncharacterized discharge,” neither dishonorable nor honorable.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 110,000 members of the Armed Forces have gained citizenship by serving in the U.S. military, according to the Defense Department.
Stars and Stripes contributed to this article.