The Army kicked out dozens of immigrant recruits. Now it's allowing them back.
By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: August 21, 2018
The Army on Monday reinstated dozens of immigrant reservists who sought citizenship through military enlistment, reversing a decision that has affected more than a hundred foreign-born recruits amid a lawsuit contending some dismissals were unfair and given without cause.
The decision puts the recruits back on a path of expedited citizenship the military has promised in exchange for crucial language and medical skills. Until recently, these soldiers could become American citizens within months of entering training, significantly faster than the naturalization process outside the military.
The Army's reversal is the latest concession in a barrage of court filings that claim the recent discharge of immigrant recruits violated Army policy and potentially violated due process guaranteed in the Constitution. And critics of the Pentagon's handling of the program say it points to serious problems with how the military vets its foreign recruits.
Army officials said in a Monday court filing that six reservists involved in a lawsuit had their discharges revoked, along with 32 reservists whose dismissals were halted. A total of 149 discharges are being reviewed, the Army said.
More than 10,000 immigrants have entered the military since 2009 through the program, which sought to enlist immigrants with skills the Pentagon has said are especially vital to military missions.
An Associated Press report from July said the Army had begun discharging dozens of immigrant recruits, prompting questions over its decisions and process.
That led to a July 20 memo ordering a halt to discharges. The Army halted the discharge of immigrants who enlisted in the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program to evaluate its administrative process for separation. Among those whose discharges were reversed was Lucas Calixto, a Brazilian reservist who first brought suit against the Army. His attorneys declined to comment.
The reinstatement of dozens of recruits and the broader look at 149 total cases is an outcropping of that review, Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
Security concerns have driven the implementation of complicated and thorough vetting, Gleason said, which scrutinizes immigrants far more than U.S.-born troops. She has previously said 20 MAVNI recruits have been investigated for national security risks since 2013 but has not said if any of those probes led to charges or arrests.
The new screening process implemented in September 2016, along with broad security concerns, led the Pentagon to shutter the program in December.
But the Army and the Pentagon want the process to be above board and fair for recruits still in the pipeline, Gleason said. Recruits signed enlistment contracts. Because of that, she noted, "[the military] wants to treat you with dignity and respect."
Court filings and attorneys for immigrant recruits paint a different picture of how the military has handled the process.
Margaret Stock, who helped implement MAVNI when she was an Army officer and is now an immigration lawyer, said she has reviewed or been told first hand about 20-30 counterintelligence review summaries obtained by recruits who filed Freedom of Information Act requests. She describes reviews riddled with errors and leaps of logic.
A common reason to weed out noncitizen recruits is the existence of foreign relatives, or sending money to relatives in other countries - a fairly common reality for immigrants.
"They set up a system designed to fail," Stock told The Post.
One Chinese recruit and PhD candidate studying physics was denied enlistment after an Army counterintelligence screener said he had trouble with social interactions and may have signs of "high functioning Asperger's," according to a document reviewed by The Post.
The recruit had no mental health diagnosis and hadn't heard of the condition before, Stock said. The screener wrote after an interview that he had no medical expertise beyond observing a family member with autism.
The recruit, who had enlisted in August 2016 and was told he failed the security review in June, had received no explanation from his recruiter and only obtained his screening summary from a FOIA request.
In a letter, his recruiter said he was among the most disciplined recruits under his supervision, Stock said.
Now his future as a citizen and soldier are in doubt.
Other recruits have seen their lives upended by the Pentagon's handling of the MAVNI program.
More than 1,000 recruits had to wait so long for their checks to be finished that they lost lawful immigration status, exposing them to potential deportation, the Pentagon said in a memo obtained by The Post last summer.
Some fled or sought asylum to avoid returning to countries where they face persecution or that forbid foreign military service, including one Iraq-born recruit who fled to Canada out of fears that the Islamic State would assassinate him if he were deported.
In other instances, some enlistment contracts were canceled nationwide in an apparent and broad misunderstanding of rules that allowed recruits to wait an additional year for the military to finish the checks. Some Army recruiters reinstated contracts for immigrants shortly after receiving inquiries from The Post in the fall.