Immigrants increasingly denied entry to US Army, path to citizenship

(Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images)

In June, a young Pakistani student studying in Minnesota managed to get his hands on the documents that explained why he wouldn’t be allowed to join the United States Army.

The electrical engineering student, who didn’t want his name revealed because of fear of reprisals if he goes back to Pakistan, “has the potential to present a security risk” the now unclassified document reads.

But it’s not clear exactly what that risk is. The document simply notes “incomplete data and records checks.” And in the section “Foreign Ties,” the interviewer notes that the student’s “cell phone case is an American flag and he has a US Army bumper sticker on his car.”

The young man is one of an increasing number of immigrants who are turning to the courts to fight their rejection by the Army, according to a lawyer who started a program to recruit talented foreigners into the US military. The military says the program they’d signed up through, which promised expedited citizenship in exchange for service, had become a security risk and that applicants require tougher vetting. Critics accuse the Pentagon of xenophobia, building on a fear of foreigners to the detriment of an Army that is struggling to find enough recruits, and talented ones at that.

Recruiting shortfalls

Exactly how many foreign recruits have been rejected or discharged is unclear, but a number of them have filed lawsuits around the country to contest the decision. The Pentagon says 10,000 people were initially recruited as part of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, designed to bring in talented and specialized recruits who could not only provide essential expertise in foreign campaigns, but also help fill gaps at a time when the US military is struggling to meet recruiting goals.

“I found [joining the Army] the most honorable way to become a citizen of a country I’ve loved since I was five,” the young Pakistani man told CNN in a telephone interview. He had signed up to the Army in April 2016, applying to be a power generator mechanic. “I had this deep loyalty toward the US since I was a kid. It was like a fairyland for me,” he said.

Like many others, this young man was kept in limbo with little or no information until finally being told he was being rejected. Now, the student not only won’t be able to enlist, but his path to citizenship is blocked as well, with a visa expiring in six months and potential deportation looming.

In one way he was more fortunate than the others who have suffered the same fate: The student is one of the few who has seen the official reason for his dismissal in black and white, in the documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act application. Most are simply being told by recruiters that they have failed the gantlet of background checks that have gotten increasingly strict in the past two years.

Security red flags

The MAVNI program was shut down in late 2016, during the waning days of the Obama administration, because it was deemed “vulnerable to an unacceptable level of risk from insider threats such as espionage, terrorism, and other criminal activity.” Pentagon officials described several major “hair-raising” issues that were discovered in the process, arguing that the discharges are not about purging immigrant recruits from the military’s ranks — the vast majority of whom are from Africa and Asia — but about security red flags.

“Department of Defense and Army policy require all recruits to undergo a suitability review as part of the military accessions process,” Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Nina Hill said. “One aspect of the suitability review is a security screening. Any recruit, to include those recruited through the MAVNI program, who receives an unfavorable security screening is deemed unsuitable for military service and is administratively discharged.”

Margaret Stock, a founder of the program as well as a retired lieutenant colonel and immigration lawyer, accuses the “incompetent bureaucrats” in the Pentagon of destroying a formidable talent pool and taking advantage of an anti-immigrant climate to create an impossibly high bar for foreign recruits to join the Army and put themselves on a path to citizenship.

‘Fear of foreigners’

“It’s a fear of foreigners. It’s a couple of bureaucrats at the Pentagon who don’t want foreigners in their ranks,” Stock told CNN. “People at the Pentagon who think [the Army is] a jobs program for poor Americans.”

The new “extreme vetting” background checks have created what Stock says is a decade-long backlog of candidates. But rather than admit they don’t have the resources to process everyone, she says, the Army is getting rid of the recruits.

Little of this stems directly from the Trump administration and its harsh policies on immigration. Stock points to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. One new regulation from Secretary of Defense James Mattis is that in order to get expedited citizenship, one most serve for 180 days. Of course, the number of those even getting to boot camp has dried up in the wake of the stricter background checks.

“It’s collapse. They took a system that was working fine and they broke it,” said Stock. “More hurdles and not funding any of the hurdles. True national security means welcoming immigrants who are going to help our national security.”