Foreign-born recruits, promised citizenship by the Pentagon, flee the country to avoid deportation
By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: July 17, 2017
Frustrated by delayed promises from the U.S. military for citizenship, and in fear of the Islamic State if he were deported back to Iraq, Ranj Rafeeq has given up the American Dream for a Canadian one.
Rafeeq was eager as a teenager to translate for U.S. troops stationed in his home town of Kirkuk in 2005. He immigrated to Portland, Oregon, to study seven years later, hoping to don an Army uniform after earning his graduate degree in civil engineering.
He signed an enlistment contract in January 2016, with a training date set in September.
"I loved American soldiers. It was my dream to be a part of them," Rafeeq, now 29, told The Washington Post.
But Rafeeq's plans to serve imploded as the Pentagon's program, designed to leverage medical and language skills of immigrants in exchange for fast-tracked citizenship, was log-jammed with additional security measures for recruits last fall, stressing an already overburdened screening process.
The program was put on hold in September 2016 - just as he was scheduled to report for training - sparking fear in Rafeeq and across the recruit population that their path to citizenship would abruptly end.
Then he received a letter from Kurdish officials warning of sweeps targeting Kurds for deportation and watched as news reports of the program's struggles mounted.
Rafeeq's student visa was set to expire on Aug. 1. He faced a decision: wait for the Pentagon's bureaucracy to untangle itself as the Trump administration seeks to expand deportation powers, or flee.
He chose to flee. On June 11, Rafeeq went to Vancouver to apply for asylum in Canada. His biggest fear with deportation is the chance that Islamic State militants would prize his capture if they uncovered his attempt to enlist.
"I can't go back to Kirkuk," he said. "They would kill me."
On June 26, The Post first reported on the Defense Department's internal recommendations to shutter the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, which has naturalized 10,400 troops since 2009, and to cancel the contracts of 1,800 of recruits like Rafeeq who are waiting to train.
About 1,000 of those recruits have waited so long that they have fallen out of legal immigration status. An internal Defense Department memo obtained by The Post acknowledges that canceling these contracts would expose the recruits to deportation. In response, lawmakers urged Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to honor the contracts of those recruits.
The recruits, who have already sworn allegiance to the United States in their oaths of enlistment, could potentially face harsh interrogations or jail time if they are deported to countries such as China or Russia, said Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration.
"These are not rule of law societies, and if they want to put pressure on [recruits], they will," Malinowski told The Post.
Malinowski said public announcements and photos of enlistments on social media could easily be exploited by adversarial intelligence agencies, in a potential propaganda victory attacking not just the United States but its most revered institution - the military.
Those governments could force the recruits to "tell the honest story of how America betrayed them," he said.
"The basic purpose of Russian propaganda is not to extol Russia, but to convince people that America is amoral," Malinowski said.
The Chinese government's charge of treason, which it finds in cases threatening to national security, ranges from 10 years of confinement to death, according to the Chinese People's Congress.
Along with South Korea, China is one of the main sources of program recruits, according to a Pentagon assessment of the program.
Media reports on the memo ignited discussion among the program's recruits and hopefuls, who closely track developments in tightknit online forums, with one Facebook page alone listing 20,000 members.
A recruit from India who administers some of pages told The Post he has seen an increase in the discussion of recruits seeking preemptive refuge. He estimates that hundreds of the 1,000 potentially under threat of deportation have either fled or are seriously considering fleeing to Canada, Germany, Australia and other countries.
One Chinese national, who declined to give his name, enlisted in the program and expected to leave for training in July 2016, but the program's suspension and a closing window for his immigration status prompted him to file for asylum in the United States last month.
China has a nativist culture, he said, and if deported he would face persecution from neighbors suspicious of his activities after living in the United States for six years.
"I wish people would see us as assets, not liabilities," he said. "I love the United States a great deal, and I would do anything to defend this country."
The program was created after military officials determined that certain medical skills and language proficiencies - such as Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Korean - were vital to national security but in short supply among U.S.-born troops. The program promises citizenship in months instead of the years-long naturalization process.
Program recruits are especially valuable to the Special Operations Command because of deep cultural and language skills necessary to train and advise foreign militaries and militias, according to a 2013 Pentagon review of the program.
Rafeeq's case is emblematic of sudden widespread distrust in the program at a time when the military seeks to ramp up personnel numbers after years of Obama-led troop level drawdowns, said Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer who led the program's design and implementation and is now an immigration lawyer.
"The Defense Department has undermined the program in such a way that it is unlikely that the damage can be undone at this point," she said. "Immigrant recruits are unlikely to trust the military in the future, and recruiting will suffer."
Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael declined to comment on any aspect of the program, citing ongoing lawsuits related to the program filed against the agency. It is unclear whether the recommendations will be implemented.
The action memo revealed by The Post draws on agency concerns that infiltrators could use the program but does not mention whether any have exploited the program.
Officials assigned threat level tiers to the nearly 10,000 program recruits, both in the service and waiting to serve, based on characteristics such as proximity to classified information and how thoroughly they have been vetted.
Stock said program recruits are the most vetted in the military, and infiltrators likely would not risk screenings in the process involving the departments of State and Homeland Security, and various intelligence agencies.
"Instead of improving overall vetting of all individuals who pose a risk, the Defense Department has chosen to waste valuable vetting resources, time and energy on 'extreme vetting' of people who pose little risk," Stock said.
Rafeeq has watched Iraq burn from Portland. His family fled violence in Kirkuk after his younger brother was injured by a car bomb. The Islamic State battled Kurdish militias there in 2014, and militants have been active there as recently as October.
For years he has wanted to lend the United States his native tongue of Kurdish and Arabic in the fight against the Islamic State. That has changed.
"I lost all my faith in the military. I felt like they were lying to me and all my brothers and sisters," Rafeeq said. "I was looking for ways to make America great in the world while they were trying to kick us out."
If Canada grants him asylum, Rafeeq wants to join the military, with a maple leaf on his shoulder.
"In Afghanistan, in Syria, I will serve them," he said. "They are hospitable and respectful toward me."