The Associated Press (hereinafter (“AP”) has reported that some immigrant U.S. Army reservists and recruits who enlisted in the military with a promised path to citizenship are being abruptly discharged. While the AP was unable to quantify how many men and women who enlisted through the special recruitment program have been removed from the Army, immigration attorneys say they know of more than 40 who have been discharged or whose status has become questionable, jeopardizing their futures.
Some of the service members 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.
Spokespeople for the Pentagon and the Army said that, due to pending litigation, they were unable to explain the discharges or respond to questions about whether there have been policy changes in any of the military branches.
Eligible recruits are required to have legal status in the U.S., such as a student visa, before enlisting. More than 5,000 immigrants were recruited into the program in 2016, and an estimated 10,000 are currently serving. Most go the Army, but some also go to the other military branches.
To become citizens, the service members need an honorable service designation, which can come after even just a few days at boot camp. But the recently discharged service members have had their basic training delayed, so they can’t be naturalized. Additionally, immigration attorneys told the AP that many immigrants let go in recent weeks were an “uncharacterized discharge,” neither dishonorable nor honorable.
Margaret Stock, an Alaska-based immigration attorney and a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who helped create the immigrant recruitment 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, Ms. 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.”
Non-U.S. citizens have served in the military since the Revolutionary War, when Continental soldiers included Irish, French and Germans. The U.S. recruited Filipino nationals to serve in the Navy in the 1940s, and worked to enlist Eastern Europeans in the military over the next decade, according to the Defense Department. 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.
Army reservist Lucas Calixto, a Brazilian immigrant who resides in Massachusetts and came to the US when he was 12-years-old, filed a lawsuit in Washington D.C. against the Army 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.”
In a statement, the Defense Department said: “All service members (i.e. contracted recruits, active duty, Guard and Reserve) and those with an honorable discharge are protected from deportation.”
President George W. Bush ordered “expedited naturalization” for immigrant soldiers in 2002 in an effort to swell military ranks. Seven years later the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, known as MAVNI, became an official recruiting program. It 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. The Trump Administration added even more hurdles, creating a backlog within the Defense Department. Last fall, hundreds of recruits still in the enlistment process had their contracts canceled. A few months later, the military suspended MAVNI. Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland, who has supported legislation to limit the program, told the AP that MAVNI was established by executive order and never properly authorized by Congress. “Our military must prioritize enlisting American citizens, and restore the MAVNI program to its specialized, limited scope,” he said.