The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Army kicked out dozens of immigrant recruits. Now it’s allowing them back amid a legal battle.

A Pakistani recruit recently discharged from the U.S. Army. (Mike Knaak/Associated Press)
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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. 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 cases 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 of im­mi­grants who en­listed in the Mil­i­tar­y Ac­ces­sions Vi­tal to the National In­ter­est (MAVNI) program, to e­val­u­ate its ad­min­is­tra­tive proc­ess for sep­a­ra­tion. Days before the memo, the Army reversed the discharge of 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 spokeswoman 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.

How the Pentagon ending its deal with immigrant recruits could hurt the military

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 to 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 non-citizen 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. The Army did not immediately return comment about its screening policies.

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 Iraqi-born recruit who fled to Canada out of fear 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.

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