James Sena, left, and twin brother John Sena, right, who emigrated from the Philippines with their parents when they were children, ship out to basic training in March. As 'Dreamers', they enlisted in the Army as a way to repay the only country they call home, but waited more than two years for their background checks to clear.

James Sena, left, and twin brother John Sena, right, who emigrated from the Philippines with their parents when they were children, ship out to basic training in March. As 'Dreamers', they enlisted in the Army as a way to repay the only country they call home, but waited more than two years for their background checks to clear. (Photo courtesy John Sena)

WASHINGTON — In the Queens, N.Y., neighborhood where he grew up, Harminder Saini never thought twice about having foreign-born parents. Half of the people in his diverse neighborhood did.

Saini was born in India but thought of himself as an American. He celebrated Halloween and the Fourth of July and at 7, he watched the plumes of smoke rise up from lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. Saini grew up with an appreciation for his country’s history and a fascination with the U.S. military.

It was only after high school, when he wanted to get a job, that his parents told him a hard truth: He was undocumented. He had no passport or Social Security number; he couldn’t get a driver’s license. His future was suddenly in limbo.

“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “I realized that on paper, at least, I wasn’t American. That really hurt.”

In 2012, when President Barack Obama instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, allowing children like Saini to remain in the U.S. legally and free from the threat of deportation, he seized on the opportunity.

He applied for and recieved DACA status, started college and, in February 2016, he signed a contract to join the Army after learning about the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, program that allowed documented immigrants with language or medical skills to enlist and to get on a fast track for citizenship.

But in an era of shifting politics over immigration and national security, the fast track has proven anything but.

Saini, 24, is among an estimated 300 DACA recipients who have been waiting months — many for more than a year — to pass a backlog of intensified background checks for MAVNI recruits. President Donald Trump’s imposed Monday deadline for ending DACA has ramped up pressure on these military recruits who had thought they were well on their way to becoming citizens. Court challenges have delayed the president’s plans, but the issue still looms.

So, Saini — along with his fellow DACA recruits — is back in limbo, wondering whether he’s about to become a soldier or about be deported. He still believes the country he loves will come through for him.

He tries not to think about what could happen if it doesn’t work out. He has no backup plan, he said.

“All these negative thoughts don’t go anywhere,” Saini said. “America is the plan. It’s always been the plan.”

Harminder Saini, a 'Dreamer' who came to the U.S. when he was 6, poses outside the Army recruiting center on Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, N.Y. on  February 18, 2016 after his swearing in ceremony. Saini is still waiting for his background checks to be completed before his status expires.

Harminder Saini, a 'Dreamer' who came to the U.S. when he was 6, poses outside the Army recruiting center on Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, N.Y. on February 18, 2016 after his swearing in ceremony. Saini is still waiting for his background checks to be completed before his status expires. (Photo courtesy Harminder Saini)

The MAVNI program

More than 10,000 foreign-born recruits have joined the Army through MAVNI since the program began in 2009 as the Army faced a recruiting challenge. It was a way to attract documented foreigners with medical or language skills deemed vital to national interests. In exchange, these recruits were offered expedited citizenship, said Maj. David Eastburn, a Defense Department spokesman.

When DACA was rolled out in 2012, its recipients became eligible to seek enlistment only through MAVNI — if they had the skills. About 900 of 690,000 DACA recipients or “Dreamers” as they are called, have joined the military through MAVNI, Eastburn said.

But security concerns heated up in late 2016, and the government has since repeatedly intensified requirements for noncitizen recruits. A Defense Department memo, released through a lawsuit brought by MAVNI recruits against the government, states that the program presents “counterintelligence and security risks” that vary based on military jobs, “risk of connections to foreign intelligence services” and the extent they’d been vetted.

That vetting now includes the same background check used for “top secret” security clearance even though MAVNI recruits are not eligible for any security clearance because they are not citizens, said former Army Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer and advocate who helped to create MAVNI and managed the program for several years.

The labor-intensive checks — which apply not only to new recruits but retroactively to all 10,000 MAVNI servicemembers regardless of rank or years of service — created a massive backlog and ultimately led the Pentagon to suspend MAVNI in August 2016. The program is still operational for those who joined before that, but it has stopped accepting recruits and its future is unclear. Without MAVNI, immigrants can’t join the military.

DACA recruits waiting for their background checks worry they are in jeopardy of losing their “deferred” status and being subject to deportation. If Trump has his way, DACA would end today.

DACA recruits aren’t the only MAVNI recruits on hold, but because they face termination, they are facing the most pressure.

Advocates say if DACA is terminated, recipients across the country will start to see their status expire at a rate of about 120 a day until ultimately, at some point in 2019, all of them would be subject to deportation.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in early February assured DACA recruits they would not be in danger of deportation while they wait for their background checks. Mattis said he spoke directly with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen who assured him that immigrants serving in the military as well as all honorably discharged veterans with no criminal actions against them are still protected. He said regarding DACA recruits, “it’s clarified that they are not in any kind of jeopardy” and Homeland Security would work with the Pentagon on DACA issues.

Stock called that statement into legal question, saying it went against a 2016 Defense Department policy memo that required all recruits to have active deferred status before they can ship off to training. So, if the DACA program is revoked and recruits waiting for background checks lose their status, they could still face a Catch-22, Stock said. As an expert on immigration law, Stock worries that there are no leaders of the MAVNI program today who have a complete understanding of the complex legalities that affect its participants.

“When the secretary makes an oral statement at a press interview and there’s official policy memos that contradict that, people tend to follow the memos,” Stock said. “Secretary Mattis apparently didn’t seem to know that he should have rescinded the memo.”

Similarly, MAVNI recruits with other forms of visas have seen them expire while they wait out background checks. The military promised them deferred action status while they wait, and some have received that. But the Department of Homeland Security has denied others the status, Stock said.

“The whole thing is insane,” Stock said.

“Some MAVNIs have been sitting for more than a year at various posts waiting for background checks, already on active duty,” Stock said. “Nobody can go anywhere until this is done.”

‘Patriotic people’

As Trump’s plan to end DACA made its way through the courts, Congress sought to heed the president’s demand that legislators reach consensus on immigration reform.

It came close, with a proposal that seemed to have something for all sides — funding for the border wall with Mexico that Trump wants and permanent protections for the Dreamers. In mid-February, the best hopes were scuttled when two bills failed.

Meanwhile, Dreamers and backers wrote op-ed pieces and open letters calling for the government to recognize the Dreamers as Americans — particularly those who chose to serve in the military.

“We have a group of patriotic people who want to don the uniform and defend the only country they’ve ever known,” said retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Scott Cooper, director of Veterans for American Ideals at Human Rights First.

Cooper, who deployed five times to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan, said he didn’t understand that for many years. Then one day during deployment in Iraq, he had a chance to witness a citizenship ceremony for a fellow Marine held in one of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s palaces.

The emotional scene was life-changing, Cooper said during a teleconference about Dreamers in late January.

“I did not know a lot about immigrants, but I realized they oftentimes cared for, loved and wanted to serve this country more than many of us who were born here,” Cooper said.

“Deporting them to countries they don’t know would be nothing short of cruel,” he said.

Two such Dreamers are John and James Sena, twin brothers who were 10 when their parents brought them to the United States from the Philippines. They, too, had no idea that legally they weren’t Americans until a Marine Corps recruiter came to their junior high school and was impressed with John Sena’s fitness.

It was the realization of a lifelong dream, Sena said. Growing up as children of immigrants, he and James were raised with a sense of gratitude for the country that had adopted them. Their plan was always to serve. “If our parents didn’t move here or didn’t give us a life in American, we probably would have died from poverty in the Philippines,” John Sena said. “Growing up, James and I talked all the time about how we felt we would have to repay our debts to this country.”

But when he went home and asked his mom for his passport and Social Security number so he could pre-enlist in the Marines, he found out he wasn’t a citizen.

After their initial shock, the brothers applied for DACA status and in 2015 applied for the MAVNI program. They signed their enlistment papers in January 2016 and waited for their background checks, growing alarmed when Trump said he wanted to end DACA.

“I’ll be honest with you, there were days when I was like, ‘Oh man,’” he said. “It just gets to you.”

Then the brothers appeared on CNN to tell their story. By then, John Sena had passed his background checks. He is slated to ship out Monday, the same day Trump’s deadline would have ended DACA had the courts not intervened.

James Sena was still in limbo, but received his ship-out date a few days later. Stock, their lawyer, believes the timing right after his appearance on CNN was not a coincidence, John Sena said.

Despite all the talk about deporting immigrants, he said he still has incredible gratitude.

“Even though there is conflict or arguments between political parties, this country pretty much took us under its wing and took care of us,” he said.

“We just want to pay it back,” he said. “Even if it (means) risking our lives or potentially dying, we are OK with that.”

Last month, in an opinion piece published on the Politico website, Dreamer William Medeiro wrote about similar experiences and the hardship of being in limbo in the only home he’s ever known.

Medeiro, who came from Brazil as a child and fluently speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese, grew up wanting to be a police officer. When he found out in high school that wasn’t an option for foreign-born immigrants, he was devastated. Then came DACA and a chance to serve and become a U.S. citizen. He’s been waiting for 18 months for his military background checks, as he worries that DACA might run out. He would be sent back to Brazil, a country where he has no ties or family.

He urged Congress to take action to not dash his dreams yet again.

“I want to fight for this country, I am willing to die for it,” Medeiro wrote. “Do the right thing.”

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