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Army suspends discharges of foreign-born recruits from citizenship program

A 22-year-old Pakistani recruit who was recently discharged from the U.S. Army is seen on July 3, 2018.
A 22-year-old Pakistani recruit who was recently discharged from the U.S. Army is seen on July 3, 2018. (Mike Knaak/Associated Press)

The Army is suspending discharges of foreign-born recruits who enlisted as part of a special military program that put them on the path to U.S. citizenship, following lawsuits by soldiers who say they have been expelled unfairly and without explanation. 

In a July 20 memo, a top Army personnel official ordered the service to “suspend processing of all involuntary separation actions” for individuals in the program and ordered a review of the discharge procedures for affected soldiers by Aug. 15.

Marshall M. Williams, acting assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, also asked the Army deputy chief of staff in charge of personnel to recommend whether additional guidance should be issued regarding the discharge procedures for individuals who enlisted through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program (MAVNI).

The existence of the memo, which emerged in a court proceeding, was first reported Thursday by the Associated Press.

 The Army’s decision to halt the discharges temporarily comes amid a raft of legal actions by soldiers who enlisted through the program and have now been discharged, potentially complicating their promised path to citizenship.

The service issued the July 20 memo days after reversing its decision to discharge Lucas Calixto, a 28-year-old reservist from Brazil, who entered the military through the program and sued the Pentagon because he faced an uncertain future in the United States owing to his separation. 

The decision is the latest controversy surrounding a pilot program that the Pentagon established in 2008 offering expedited American citizenship for foreign-born recruits with highly desired language and medical skills. More than 10,000 recruits have enlisted in the U.S. military through the program, in some cases obtaining citizenship by the end of their basic training.

It wasn’t clear if the Army suspension would lead to fewer MAVNI recruits being discharged in the future.

The Pentagon suspended the program in 2016 after judging that its procedures presented an unacceptable risk of insider threats including espionage and terrorism. The department ordered that those service members who enlisted through the program be subjected to enhanced security screening — a procedure that would be impossible for many of them to pass.

An increasing number of service members in the program have been receiving discharge orders since then. They have argued in court filings that they haven’t received proper explanations about why they are being pushed out or opportunities to appeal the decisions.

Cynthia O. Smith, a spokeswoman for the Army, said in a statement that the service had suspended discharges of individuals recruited through the program “in order to conduct a thorough review of the administrative separation process.”  

Smith added, “We continue to abide by all requirements to include completing a thorough background investigation on all MAVNI applicants.”

Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokesperson, said the required security screening can be difficult and time-consuming for MAVNI recruits because they are foreign nationals and the military has a limited ability to verify information in the individual’s home country.

Margaret Stock, a lawyer and retired lieutenant colonel in the military police, who helped create the program, said she believed the Army memo was a reaction to Calixto’s lawsuit and “an admission by the Army that they are violating the soldiers’ rights.”

“It violates Army regulations to discharge them without telling them why they are being discharged,” Stock said. She said the program had been designed to recruit qualified immigrants and now the Pentagon was expelling them in some cases for having foreign relatives. 

“It’s clear to me that they just want to get rid of people — and it looks like a good clean excuse to get rid of people to make it look like they failed a background check,” Stock said.  

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last year that the Pentagon would like to find a way to save the program.