The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Honor our contract’: Lawmakers press Trump not to deport foreign-born military recruits

A U.S. Army recruiting command virtual town hall on June 16 addressed questions about the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program. (Video: MAVNI Center)

Three lawmakers are pressing President Trump and the Pentagon to intervene on a proposal to cancel enlistment contracts for 1,000 immigrant military recruits in a bid to shield them from deportation.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) will propose an amendment to constrain the Pentagon from eliminating those contracts in an appropriations committee markup Thursday, after a report Monday from The Washington Post about internal Defense Department recommendations to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

“For the Defense Department to even consider terminating these contracts is a betrayal of people who want to serve the United States,” McCollum told The Post on Wednesday. “My amendment is a first step to holding the Pentagon accountable on its commitments to foreign nationals who want to fill critical military roles.”

The foreign-born recruits enlisted in the military through the Pentagon’s Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, an initiative to harness medical and language skills in exchange for fast-tracked citizenship.

The story provoked outrage from both chambers of Congress. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) demanded personal assurances from Trump to step into the fray and block any potential forced removals.

“I feel it is only right that we honor our contract with them, and that we allow these individuals to continue to live in America once their service has concluded,” Meng said in a letter to Trump on Tuesday.

The Pentagon promised citizenship to immigrants who served. Now it might help deport them.

“As a country, we made a commitment to thousands of brave men and women who are willing to lay down their lives in service to our great nation. I’m sad to see that with President Trump as commander in chief, even our military can’t be trusted to keep its promises,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Army veteran wounded in combat, told The Post on Wednesday.

“These recruits deserve the chance to defend our freedom instead of being put at risk for deportation. Anything else is a breach of contract,” she said.

A Pentagon memo obtained by The Post said layers of additional security screenings and concerns over potential threats created a logjam of applicants, which overtasked resources and led personnel officials to recommend the cancellation of contracts for about 1,800 recruits waiting to train — about 1,000 of whom hold no legal immigration status, according to the memo.

Since 2009, more than 10,400 troops, most of them with service in the Army, have served in uniform with medical skills and language specialties central to established or growing areas of concern — such as Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Pashto — which were identified by the Pentagon as vital to the success of military operations but in short supply among U.S.-born troops.

An unknown number of recruits have received deferred action from immigration authorities due to their involvement in the program, which would be reversed if the recommendations made in the memo are approved, leaving the recruits vulnerable to deportation.

They served in the U.S. military and hoped for citizenship. Then they got deported.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Johnny Michael, a spokesman for the Pentagon, declined to comment on the letter and the ongoing discussions about the fate of the program.

Pressure from Capitol Hill might put Trump between two opposing forces related to his campaign rhetoric. Shedding nearly 2,000 skilled troops at a time when the Army seeks to beef up after recent years of personnel drawdowns could run contrary to his promise to rebuild the military to make it “so big and so strong and so great.”

But Trump has also made tougher immigration policies central in his administration, with ongoing legal battles over sanctuary cities and the Supreme Court recently allowing some parts of his travel ban executive order to go into effect.

Trump is reportedly aware of the ongoing issues facing foreign-born veterans who served in the U.S. military but were deported for various crimes before they filed for naturalization through the military.

“We should do something about this,” Trump recently said to congressional Democrats before his staff intervened to explain the thorny issue, according to BuzzFeed.

The Pentagon memo also recommended to Mattis that 4,100 troops already serving in the force — most of whom are naturalized citizens through the program — should face “enhanced screening” to quell concern that the program could be used by infiltrators. Officials conceded it would be difficult to navigate “significant legal constraints” of  “continuous monitoring” of citizens without cause, according to the memo.

In a not-so-subtle reference to Trump’s campaign slogan, Meng described the recruits in danger of deportation as “patriotic” examples in need of White House intervention.

“They are exactly the type of individuals who will continue to make America great,” Meng said.