CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had issued a “directive” to prevent the deportation of immigrant veterans. It was not a Pentagon directive; Mattis said he had an agreement with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to avoid such deportations. The article has been updated.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement appears to have ignored an apparent agreement between Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to prevent the deportation of noncitizen troops and veterans, seeking to remove a Chinese immigrant despite laws that allow veterans with honorable service to naturalize, court filings show.
Xilong Zhu, 27, who came from China in 2009 to attend college in the United States, enlisted in the Army and was caught in an immigration dragnet involving a fake university set up by the Department of Homeland Security to catch brokers of fraudulent student visas.
Zhu paid tuition to the University of Northern New Jersey, created by DHS to appear as a real school, long enough to ship to basic training using the legal status gained from a student visa issued to attend that school.
Then ICE found him and asked the Army to release him for alleged visa fraud. He left Fort Benning, Ga., on Nov. 10, 2016, in handcuffs as an honorably discharged veteran. He was detained for three weeks and released.
Zhu is waiting for a Seattle judge’s ruling on his removal proceedings, which are based on allegations by ICE that he failed to attend classes in violation of his student visa. His attorney says his client is a victim of federal entrapment.
Zhu’s case comes amid Trump administration pressure on immigration judges to speed up deportation proceedings in an apparent move to adjudicate more removals, aligning with President Trump’s stated goals.
But it also comes after Mattis said he would protect certain immigrant recruits who enlist through a program designed to trade fast-tracked citizenship for medical and language skills. Those assurances followed sustained controversy over how the Pentagon has exposed more than a thousand foreign-born recruits to deportation. A background-screening logjam began in late 2016 when fears of insider threats slowed clearances to a glacial pace.
“Anyone with an honorable discharge … will not be subject to any kind of deportation,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon in February, describing exceptions for those who commit a “serious felony” and anyone who has been authorized for deportation in an agreement he said was made with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Zhu’s attorney, retired Army officer Margaret Stock, told The Washington Post those exceptions do not apply to him.
DHS referred questions to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Spokesman Jonathan Withington declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. ICE declined to provide a comment attributable by name.
But through court documents, ICE has interpreted the Mattis agreement applies to a narrow group of foreign recruits that exclude Zhu. It’s unclear whether ICE consulted with the Pentagon on the subject, or if the agency has moved to deport other immigrant recruits since Mattis spoke in February.
Zhu graduated from basic training on June 9, 2016, and was handed over to ICE custody months later, after the Army lost a battle to retain him, Stock said. Zhu was included in a group of “holdovers,” an Army term he disdains that refers to soldiers who fail training.
That wasn’t him.
“It made me nauseous to be lumped into that group,” he told The Post.
How Zhu got in his predicament is a strange, bureaucratic odyssey after he graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin in 2013. He wanted to become a U.S. citizen, so he decided to enlist through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program that his father in China had read about. It trades expedited citizenship for language and medical skills in short supply among U.S.-born recruits.
The program was designed by Stock and implemented in 2009, with more than 10,000 troops rotating through since then.
But it was temporarily shelved at the time Zhu tried to enlist in 2013, so he needed a way to keep his status. U.S. Quickly, a company that provides education consultation to immigrants, told him that the University of Northern New Jersey was approved by DHS to authorize curricular practical training, a type of school credit for his work at Apple as a customer support technician.
DHS certified his studies, and he paid the university $8,000. He took his new I-20 form as proof of lawful status to obtain a driver’s license, Stock said, all while the sting operation fooled students. As part of Operation Triple Lindy, undercover agents posed as university administrators, and the school website promised “an exceptional educational experience.”
U.S. Quickly did not return a request for comment.
“Nobody knew the school was fake,” Stock said, including Zhu, who said it would be “suicide” to knowingly attend a fake school given that he would soon be screened by government agencies, including DHS. Stock said DHS never reimbursed the $8,000 Zhu paid the fake school.
A class-action lawsuit of students alleging entrapment was dismissed in October because ICE had not determined whether it was taking further action.
USCIS has delayed Zhu’s open naturalization request, Stock said. On Tuesday, she filed a suit against DHS with the U.S. District Court in Washington state to force a decision.
Zhu was released after seven months of service, according to court documents obtained by The Post. His driver’s license from Washington state has “veteran” printed on it.
His status should mean that he can proceed with citizenship. Laws in place since World War I say noncitizens who leave the military under “honorable conditions” are eligible for naturalization.
But ICE disputes the circumstances.
Jordan L. Jones, an ICE assistant chief counsel, said in a Seattle federal immigration court filing on March 29 that Mattis was actually referring only to recruits who came to the country illegally as children and enlisted later through DACA as those who are protected.
Zhu is removable “despite his honorable discharge,” Jones wrote, adding the judge, John F. Walsh, cannot dismiss proceedings.
Stock said Mattis could not have meant only DACA recipients because they overwhelmingly naturalize in the military and are only a small portion of foreign recruits who enlist.
“They’re ignoring what Mattis said,” Stock said.
When asked to clarify Mattis’s remarks, Pentagon spokesman Maj. David Eastburn referred to the February statement. Mattis previously said he wants to preserve the MAVNI program.
Zhu, a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese, could have proved useful in uniform as the U.S. military focuses on countering an increasingly aggressive China and Russia.
Instead, deportation looms, including threats from Zhu’s former homeland.
A former State Department official told The Post in July that Chinese-born U.S. military recruits who are deported to their native land may face harsh confinement and interrogation.
If deported, Zhu would probably return to his home town in Chongqing. It features an unusual memorial for a communist nation: a bust of Army Gen. Joseph Stilwell, who commanded U.S. and Chinese forces from the city during World War II. A library named after President Franklin D. Roosevelt is also there, Zhu said.
But the city also brims with hostility toward the United States.
Zhu said that after he graduated in 2013, local authorities investigated allegations of corruption involving his father, a businessman. They obtained his phone and viewed instant messages in which he and his son discussed Zhu’s future military service. The authorities were suspicious and called his son unpatriotic, then let him go without charges after 48 hours, Zhu said.
The episode rattled his father.
“If you get a chance,” he told his son, “don’t ever think about coming back.”
Correction: This story incorrectly stated Zhu’s discharge date. It has been updated.