Politics & Policy

That Story about Immigrants Being Discharged from the Military Is Much More Complex than the AP Makes It Seem

U.S. Army recruits march during basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., in 2006. (Staff Sergeant Shawn Weismiller/US Army)
In reality, it’s a cautionary tale of bureaucratic incompetence and opacity, not an indictment of the Trump administration’s posture toward immigrants.

An Associated Press report on Thursday evening leveled a chilling accusation against the Trump administration, alleging that immigrant U.S. army recruits and reservists are being discharged from the military. The report cited recent cases in which non-citizen recruits were issued an unqualified discharge from the military, and thereby denied naturalization through a special program designed to attract skilled foreign-national enlistees with a promise of citizenship. Collective outrage at the Trump administration’s immigration policies followed and, as is often the case, obscured the far-more-complicated truth of the matter.

It’s true that some recruits in the Military Accessions Vital to National Security (MAVNI) program have in recent days been mysteriously discharged. It’s also true that the AP sloppily framed the story as an outrageous attempt to expel immigrants from the military, which has led some of the president’s political foes to turn it into cheap political fodder. (“Even our troops aren’t exempt from Trump’s racism, ” the California Democratic party wrote on Twitter.) Yet this episode has nothing to do with the administration’s hostility to immigration; it is above all the story of a bureaucratic battle. That it’s been twisted into something else is a reminder, if ever one were needed, that facts can quickly become the casualty of political expediency in the age of social-media outrage.

In 2002, President George Bush signed an executive order permitting the expedited naturalization of active-duty non-citizen soldiers, in an effort to swell the ranks of the armed forces after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2008, the Bush administration created MAVNI, a program for expedited naturalization with a targeted approach to recruiting highly skilled foreign nationals to the military, for two reasons: (1) to fill the gaps in the military’s critical-language capabilities, which the 9/11 commission recognized as a weak link in America’s national-security apparatus; and (2) to recruit foreigners with technical skills, such as dentists and doctors. These recruits were a highly educated bunch: The inaugural MAVNI cohort in 2009 accounted for close to 2/3 of the military’s master’s degrees and filled 47 percent of its shortage of dentists. Where the military was in need of recruits with language and other skills, these foreigners answered the call in exchange for a quicker path to citizenship than was possible through non-military means.

While the program ran more or less smoothly until the end of the Obama administration, it faced a few bumps on the road from its inception until it stopped accepting new recruits in 2016. The 2009 Fort Hood shooting led to its suspension before it was restarted in 2012, as Pentagon officials worried about internal threats from non-citizen service members. Additionally, the program faced strains as the inclusion of DACA recipients was ordered by the Obama administration in 2014.

In an interview with National Review, Margaret Stock — who designed the MAVNI program when she worked at the Department of Defense and is now an immigration lawyer representing recently discharged MAVNI recruits — says that she supported the enlistment of DACA recipients in the military, but not through MAVNI, which “wasn’t designed for them.” According to Stock, then–Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson, who would go on to serve as Obama’s secretary of homeland security, added DACA beneficiaries to the program in a memo that argued “with no basis in law or fact [that] the only way to let them into the military was through the MAVNI program.”

And so, while potentially thousands of DACA recipients could otherwise have joined the military, their participation was limited exclusively to MAVNI by Johnson’s memo, and only 900 of them enlisted. (Spanish is not a critical language whose speakers are sought by the military, and it is impossible for immigrants without legal status to become doctors.)

Even this limited addition to the program contributed to a modest background-check backlog. But according to Stock, the program was dealt a truly deadly blow in September 2016, when Pentagon officials ordered “extreme vetting” for MAVNI recruits. Before, these recruits had already been subjected to the background-check process for receiving top-secret security clearance, which included counterintelligence screening among other rigorous measures. Now, the additional “extreme vetting” procedures stretched the Defense Department’s capabilities to their breaking point. Stock says that this move was made without commissioning a cost-benefit analysis, and that defense officials neglected to back it with the necessary resources and manpower to carry it out. MAVNI stopped accepting new recruits shortly after the “extreme vetting” order, and the program was finally suspended in 2017.

There are more than 70,000 non-citizen individuals serving in the U.S. military. The discharges described by the AP affect a few dozen people who enlisted through MAVNI. As nonsensical as the current policy toward them is, it reflects not a maliciously xenophobic purge of immigrants from the armed forces but rather the woes of bad, opaque policymaking.

The substantive issue here is the immigrants left in limbo, the ones who signed contracts in 2015 and 2016, before the program ended, and are now facing unqualified discharge (rather than the honorable discharge that would grant them citizenship under the program). Because MAVNI enlistees were promised citizenship through the arrangement, many let their visas lapse, and some now face return to their home countries, such as China and Russia, whose governments view them as traitors.

The justification given for discharging the MAVNI recruits whose cases have been publicly revealed in recent days (it’s likely that several more will come to light soon enough) is that they failed a background check. This is not, however, as straightforward as it immediately seems — while failing a background check might indicate that one is a national-security concern, in this case it might well also be a simple reflection of bureaucratic insanity. Funnily, some of the discharged recruits were concurrently approved for asylum status and legal residency, suggesting that other review processes did not view them as threatening.

Stock tells National Review that one of her clients, a man from Pakistan, failed his background check because investigators flagged family ties in his home country and his relationship with his fiancée as concerning. Yet his background-check report, which Stock obtained through a FOIA request, also shows that the Equifax portion of his screening had not come through. Normally, sending records via Equifax takes 48 hours — not three years, as it did in his case. To boot, the report also notes that this man — whose phone and car bumper are emblazoned with American flags — “has such a deep and longstanding loyalty to the U.S., that he can be expected to resolve any conflict of interest in favor of the U.S.” Yet, it passes him over because his file is incomplete.

Much has been made in reactions to the AP article of whether the immigrants discharged can have truly “enlisted” before expulsion from the military. But if Stock’s client’s case reflects a broader trend — which is entirely conceivable, considering the total chaos that reigned over MAVNI background checks — then justifying discharge on the grounds of failing a background check is moot. If the government does not execute these background checks, their subjects will necessarily fail them. (That said, it’s also entirely possible that a recruit could fail a check on his own merits, a nuance that makes this debate yet more complex.)

As NPR reporter Tim Mak noted on Twitter, the real story here should be a change in policy regarding the recruits held in limbo, which evidently led to this week’s wave of discharges. That these enlistees are being discharged is a new development in this long-running saga. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the AP’s story, which is light on policy details and thus leaves room for partisans to create their own fictions. The MAVNI program isn’t even mentioned until halfway through the piece. To simply lead with the comment that enlistees are being discharged does not give the appropriate context; one must understand the full sweep of the program’s history, and what the latest discharges mean for immigrants in the military more generally.

There are more than 70,000 non-citizen individuals serving in the U.S. military. The discharges described by the AP affect a few dozen people who enlisted through MAVNI. As nonsensical as the current policy toward them is, it reflects not a maliciously xenophobic purge of immigrants from the armed forces but rather the woes of bad, opaque policymaking. Before using the AP report for their political purposes, the Trump administration’s critics should first stop and understand its full context.

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