Immigrant Soldiers Rocked by Sudden US Army Discharges
July 7, 2018
Martha Mendoza and Garance Burke / Associated Press & Perry O'Brien / Common Defense
Immigrant recruits and reservists are struggling with abrupt, often unexplained military discharges and canceled contracts. They volunteered to join the armed forces for the prospect of US citizenship, a timeworn exchange that's drawn immigrants to the military since the Revolutionary War. It is unclear how many these men and women have been ousted from the Army. Some recruits say they were given no reason for their discharge.
Immigrant PhD Candidate Rocked by Sudden US Army Discharge
Martha Mendoza and Garance Burke / Associated Press
"It's just like you're dropped from heaven to hell."
-- Panshu Zhao
SAN FRANCISCO (July 6, 2018) -- Growing up in eastern China, Panshu Zhao fell in love with America. He read the Bible his parents gave him, watched Hollywood movies and studied the ideals of democracy. He jumped at the chance to attend graduate school at Texas A&M University.
In 2016, Zhao enlisted in the US Army as part of a special recruitment program offering immigrants in the country legally a path to citizenship.
The future, he said, was bright.
Now, he is one of the dozens of immigrant recruits and reservists struggling with abrupt, often unexplained military discharges and canceled contracts. They traded being willing to risk their lives for the prospect of US citizenship, a timeworn exchange that's drawn linguists, medical specialists and thousands of other immigrants to the military since the Revolutionary War.
"It's just like you're dropped from heaven to hell," Zhao told The Associated Press on Friday.
It is unclear how many men and women who enlisted through the special recruitment program have been ousted from the Army, but immigration attorneys told the AP that they know of more than 40 recruits who recently have been discharged or whose status has become questionable.
Some recruits say they were given no reason for their discharge. Others said the Army informed them they'd been labeled as security risks because they have relatives abroad or because the Defense Department had not completed background checks on them.
The Pentagon said Friday that there has been no policy change since last year, when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said no one could enter basic training without completion of a background investigation.
And Army spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said that any enlistee entering the military undergoes security screenings.
"Each recruit undergoes an individualized suitability review and the length of time for the review is dependent upon each individual's unique background," Smith said.
Zhao, 31, said his "ship out" date to basic training was delayed for two years as he underwent background checks, counterintelligence interviews and rigorous reviews added as requirements for immigrant enlistees.
He continued to pursue his PhD in geography at Texas A&M but also hit the gym, prepping for boot camp. And he trained -- in uniform -- with his unit. He had military identification and health care, he said.
In April, Zhao visited Washington, D.C., for the first time, touring the White House and visiting the Republican National Committee.
That same month, he got word from his unit commander: He was being discharged. He was told simply that his discharge was "uncharacterized," he said.
"I'm not a national threat," Zhao said. "On the contrast, I'm a national merit because people like me with higher education and critical skills, we want to serve this great US Army. I'm a good scientist no matter what."
The Pentagon announced last October that in order to apply for citizenship, immigrant recruits were required to have gone through basic training and served honorably for either 180 days or a year, depending on their Army classification. But that requirement has been challenged in court.
Some discharged service members whose basic training was delayed cannot start the naturalization process. Others who started the process have had their applications put on hold.
Immigration attorneys told the AP that many immigrants let go in recent weeks received an "uncharacterized discharge," which is neither dishonorable nor honorable.
A Brazilian reservist, Lucas Calixto, filed a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., last week contending that he was booted without the Defense Department giving him a chance to defend himself or appeal.
President George W. Bush ordered "expedited naturalization" for immigrant soldiers in 2002 in an effort to swell military ranks. Seven years later, the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, known as MAVNI, became an official recruiting program.
The program came under fire from conservatives when President Barack Obama added DACA recipients -- young immigrants brought to the US illegally -- to the list of eligible enlistees. In response, the military layered on additional security clearances for recruits to pass before heading to boot camp.
Donald Trump's administration added even more hurdles, creating a backlog within the Defense Department. Last fall, hundreds of recruits still in the enlistment process had their contracts canceled. A few months later, the military suspended MAVNI.
Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland, who has supported legislation to limit the program, told the AP that MAVNI was established by executive order and never properly authorized by Congress.
"Our military must prioritize enlisting American citizens, and restore the MAVNI program to its specialized, limited scope," he said.
According to Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman, the "overwhelming majority" of MAVNI candidates are from Asia and Africa because those are the critical language skills needed in the military.
As of April, 1,100 immigrant recruits were awaiting basic training while undergoing security reviews, the Pentagon said.
Eligible recruits are required to have legal status in the US, such as a student visa, before enlisting. More than 5,000 immigrants were recruited into the program in 2016, and an estimated 10,000 are currently serving. Most go the Army, but some also go to the other military branches.
Zhao is now rethinking his future, but said he wishes he had a chance to appeal.
"I need justice," he said. "This is America. This is not China. This is not the Middle East. This is not a dictatorship. And that's why I love America."
Associated Press Writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
The Army Is Kicking Out
Our Immigrant Brothers and Sisters
Perry O'Brien / Common Defense
(July 5, 2018) -- I'm seething. The day after we celebrate our nation's birth, the AP reported that the Army is throwing out immigrants who took the oath to enlist, and terminating their contracts with no explanation.
It's not even a new development. We've heard reports of these plans since last year, and leaked memos from the Pentagon show that even though the military is desperate for immigrants' special skills and critical languages, and the Army is failing to meet it's recruitment targets, Trump's white supremacist agenda is winning out over national security.
We need to organize veterans to speak out and make clear to Secretary of Defense Mattis and the generals in the Pentagon that they can't pretend Trump's racist agenda doesn't affect them. We need to remind them that they have to choose whether to do the right thing, or betray our American values and be complicit.
Through our country's history, military service has been a path to citizenship for new Americans arriving on our shores. But Trump hates immigrants so much, he wants to slam even that door shut. And Secretary Mattis is standing by, doing nothing to defend these recruits.
Our movement is about challenging the way a few right wing billionaires and corrupt politicians use the military as props to silence regular Americans who speak out to challenge injustice and inequality in this country. Trump and his cronies know that the true diversity of people who serve in uniform represents a powerful force to counter his bigoted and divisive propaganda, and that's why he's worked so hard to ban Transgender people, Muslims, and immigrants, and attacked women who serve.
Enough is enough. United we stand, and divided we fall. We'll do whatever it takes to defend the rights of everyone who calls our country home. And we'll vote out everyone who's been complicit in Trump's horrific policies of hate. But we can't do it alone. Can you help mobilize veterans to speak out against these un-American policies? As former service members ourselves, we have a unique opportunity to change the conversation about immigration.
We've seen these policies halted before. We know that our people power can win. In the military we believe that you NEVER leave our comrades behind. And that rings just as true today as it did when I served. That's why I know you'll join us in fighting for a more just system for all of us.
Perry O'Brien, US Army veteran, Common Defense.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, for noncommercial, educational purposes.