In the past month, the Pentagon booted two Chinese recruits from the enlistment process because of their dead grandfathers, who lived very different lives.
One recruit’s grandfather, whom he never met, served in the communist military. Another recruit was removed from the program after drilling for three years because of the polar opposite — Zicheng Li’s grandfather fought against, and was tortured by, China’s Communist Party, defense officials wrote.
Screening documents obtained by The Washington Post detailing reasons that these and other foreign recruits were removed from the military reveal a pattern of canceled enlistments and failed screenings for fact-of-life events and, often, simply for existing as foreigners.
Immigrant enlistees have been cut loose for being the children of foreign parents or for having family ties to their native government or military. In some cases, they have relatives who served in militaries closely allied with the United States. Those removals raise questions about the Pentagon’s screening process and why it has weeded out precisely the recruits defense officials said they needed.
The Pentagon program under which they were recruited called for a simple idea: The military would enlist immigrants to harness strategic language and medical abilities in short supply among U.S.-born troops, calling the skills of immigrants a national security imperative.
The program was even named in that fashion — Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, which enlisted more than 10,400 foreign troops in the past decade, with the promise of fast-tracked naturalization that would take weeks. Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic and other speakers have been in demand by defense officials.
Then denials began to quicken since stricter screening was implemented in late 2016, an attorney for immigrant recruits said, pointing to family ties as a common reason.
Li, who arrived in Minnesota from China in 2012 to study aerospace engineering, told The Post that his Army enlistment had crawled since February 2016. In that time, he attended drills as a selected reservist and received his uniform and an ID card that grants him access to Army installations.
Then this month, after three years of waiting, an enlistment denial justification letter arrived in his mailbox, containing two sentences about family history.
Li told investigators that his since-deceased grandfather’s torture decades ago by communists prompted worry of reprisals if the Chinese government learned of Li’s enlistment. “You revealed that you fear for your family’s safety,” officials wrote in a letter, saying his suitability for enlistment is adverse, documents show.
“I’m shocked and numb,” Li said. “They use anything they can to kick us out.”
The new vetting process has delayed enlistments by years, and the wait has turned more than 1,000 recruits — who enlisted as legal immigrants with visas — into unlawful immigrants whose credentials expired as their screenings tumbled through bureaucratic limbo.
The Pentagon has acknowledged in court filings that none of the thousands of recruits who later naturalized from the program have been charged with espionage-related crimes, though one Chinese recruit has been accused of failing to register as a foreign agent. The new vetting procedures did not play a role in his detection, court filings said.
It is unclear how many immigrant recruits have been turned away as recruits or discharged as soldiers in recent months. In a spate of lawsuits alleging misconduct and violation of equal protection laws, the Pentagon has reversed decisions and halted discharges.
Defense officials have not offered public insight into how the vetting works or what kind of oversight exists but defend the process as necessary to avoid foreign influence and coercion. The vetting results are typically explained in one or two sentences.
Another Chinese-born recruit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal to his family by the Chinese government, told The Post he was denied enlistment last month because his father and grandfather served in the communist military, though the report about his relatives’ positions was inaccurate, he said.
His grandfather died before the recruit was born. “I don’t know what the harm is for me to finish my contract and gain my citizenship,” he said.
MAVNI screening can be “time-consuming due to our limited ability” to verify information from home countries, said Jessica Maxwell, a Pentagon spokeswoman. She declined to address questions about the process itself and whether screeners adjust expectations of foreign ties if they are screening foreign people.
She also declined to say how many MAVNI recruits are still waiting for their screening to finish, citing litigation and privacy limitations.
Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer who has represented MAVNI recruits, including Li, said the Pentagon has scuttled millions of dollars and years of time to produce unclear reasons it separates immigrants the agency itself determined it needed.
“This is what they come up with? Your grandfather served in a foreign army before you were born?” Stock said. “What is the threat to national security? They can’t articulate it here.”
Other rejections point to speculative or seemingly benign information for immigrants living typical lives.
“You revealed that you maintain routine contact with your father and mother who are citizens of and reside in China,” one document said.
An Indian-born recruit was cut loose after an investigation determined that family members “work for or have worked for the Indian army,” according to one document, even thought India and the United States share a defense relationship. Recruits from South Korea, a key U.S. defense ally, have been penalized because their fathers are required by conscription to serve, Stock said.
Maxwell declined to say why a family member’s involvement in a friendly military would raise suspicions.
Another enlistee was rejected for “multiple wire transfers” through U.S. banks, though the screening review did not describe the nature of the transfers or whether they were unlawful.
One recruit, a Chinese doctoral student, was turned away because a screener with no medical experience said the recruit had Asperger’s syndrome — on the basis that the screener once observed a family member with autism, The Post previously reported.
Potential persecution of Li’s family could be aided by the U.S. military itself. U.S. Army recruiters inadvertently exposed the private information of hundreds of Chinese-born recruits, heightening the risk that Chinese government officials would target their families, a lawmaker said.
Those disclosures and enlistment delays have forced several to apply for U.S. asylum protection, including Li, while he fights the Army’s determination that he is unsuitable for service.
He said wants to bring his family to the United States. Until then, he has taken a rather American path: He helps design grain enclosures and spreaders for a farm equipment company in Minnesota, with an eye to eventually transitioning from the Army to the Air Force.
Li wants to be a pilot, he said, perhaps for the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.
Fighters can be flashy, he said. But the Hercules can get him more time in the cockpit on missions around the world.