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A US soldier is returning from South Korea — but Customs and Border Protection might not allow him back

Fadel Tankoano stands with his brothers at a U.S. Army basic training graduation in 2018.

FADEL TANKOANO

By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: October 6, 2020

An Army soldier who is finishing his assignment abroad might be blocked from reentering the U.S., government officials said, in a dispute over his legal status stemming from his birth in New York while his father was a foreign diplomat there.

Army Pfc. Fadel Tankoano, 22, said he thought he was a dual citizen of Niger and the U.S., pointing to the U.S. passport he was issued as a toddler and a birth certificate from a Manhattan hospital.

But officials said Tankoano misrepresented his status when he enlisted in 2018 and on passport applications.

Tankoano’s Nigerien father enjoyed full diplomatic immunity as a counselor at the United Nations when his son was born, State Department officials said. That means that he was not subject to domestic law — and that Tankoano was exempt from birthright citizenship.

Tankoano is being forced out of the military on the grounds of fraudulent entry, Army officials said, and will be sent back to the U.S. this month. But an official with Customs and Border Protection said he might be turned away when he arrives.

The soldier’s trouble began when he applied for a new passport in July 2019 and a State Department official told him that he was an alien with no claim to U.S. citizenship.

“I was truly shocked,” he told The Washington Post in a telephone interview from Camp Humphreys, an Army post in South Korea, where he serves as a logistical support soldier.

Soldiers on overseas assignments who are leaving the military typically return to the U.S. to complete their paperwork. But Tankoano said his commanders ordered him to take passport photos so the State Department could furnish travel documents and fly him to Niger.

Margaret Stock, Tankoano’s attorney and a retired Army officer, said the government’s strategy was to deprive Tankoano of the U.S. court system by sending him to Africa.

Government officials said the plan was intended as a solution because they believed Tankoano’s military ID, which is a travel document, was no longer valid. His military ID, however, is still valid as long as he is on active duty, the Army said.

Tankoano filed a grievance with his commanders on the decision to send him to Niger. The Army reversed course, saying in a Sept. 29 letter that he would be allowed to return to his home in Houston later this month, via a commercial flight arriving in Seattle.

But a CBP attache in Seoul already has recommended to the Army and the State Department that Tankoano not be allowed to reenter the U.S. based on the assessment of his case, officials said. That could create a scenario in which the Army sends him home but immigration officials bar his entry and either refer him to immigration court or remove him from the country.

Tankoano applied for a U.S. passport while living in Niger in 2015 and again in Texas in 2018. State Department and CBP officials said he should have known that he wasn’t a citizen after both were denied. They also said he made a false claim when he filed for benefits for his immigrant wife that are available to families of service members.

But his mother, Emily Tankoano, said the situation had not been clear.

No officials from the State Department or the United Nations counseled her about her son’s citizenship status after he was born, she said, and he was a minor when his 2015 passport application was rejected. He received a visa but didn’t understand the difference, she said.

“Fadel thought he was still an American. I had not spoken to him about his citizenship,” she said in a phone interview from Niamey, Niger’s capital.

The State Department acknowledged that the U.S. passport he received as a toddler was “issued in error,” an official said.

Theresa Brown, a former CBP official who has worked as an attache in Ottawa, said Tankoano’s case is likely included in a system used by the CBP to scan airplane manifests, and he might be flagged for additional scrutiny in Seattle before he lands.

That is where his circumstances about his case will be evaluated, said Brown, now the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

From there, Tankoano faces four possibilities. He could be allowed into the country, declared inadmissible and turned away from the U.S., referred to an immigration judge to decide whether he can enter, or paroled with a set time for his departure, Brown said.

After his passport application was rejected, Tankoano filed paperwork to naturalize through his service in May. Nearly 180,000 immigrants naturalized in the military between October 2001 and 2018, according to government data.

One requirement to naturalize, a validation of honorable service from a senior officer, was signed by Tankoano’s former brigade commander, Col. Joseph Pishock, on May 18, according to records obtained by The Post.

Stock has handled dozens of cases involving service members who willfully or unknowingly misrepresented their immigration status at enlistment.

Most remained in the service and were allowed to naturalize because commanders wanted to keep them, she said, though a few were forced out of the military. They, too, were naturalized, she said. Veterans can naturalize even with infractions on their record, according to immigration law.

Luis Lopez, a Mexican national, knowingly provided a false birth certificate to an Army recruiter. His discharge documents say he served honorably but enlisted fraudulently, according to the Wall Street Journal. He naturalized in 2011.

Another soldier, South Korea native Yea Ji Sea, lied under oath to Army investigators about her immigration status and later recanted, said Stock, who helped represent her. She left the Army and naturalized in 2018.

The Washington Post’s Borso Tall and Danielle Paquette in Senegal contributed to this report.