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They Were Recruited Into the Military, But Non-Citizen Troops Now Face An Uncertain Future

The first Navy sailors to participate in the MAVNI program take their oath of citizenship in this 2010 file photo. MAVNI has been controversial since it began in 2008.
Scott Thornbloom
U.S. Navy
The first Navy sailors to participate in the MAVNI program take their oath of citizenship in this 2010 file photo. MAVNI has been controversial since it began in 2008.

From 2009 to 2016, the Defense Department recruited more than 10,000 non-citizens into the armed forces. Now some say they're being discharged without explanation.

In the era after 9/11, the military and intelligence communities came up with a program to address the lack of personnel with foreign language skills and other critical expertise.

The recruited non-citizens into the armed forces, with the promise that those who served honorably could earn U.S. citizenship on an expedited basis. The program, called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), eventually attracted more than 10,000 non-citizens into the military.

But over the last few months, advocates say at least 40 have been discharged - many without explanation or written notice.

One Burmese recruit said he learned of his discharge a few weeks ago. He enlisted in the Army through the MAVNI program in 2016 but was still waiting for his background checks to clear.

"I did my monthly check-in with my recruiter as I have always done," said the recruit, who asked to remain unnamed because of immigration concerns. "They told me that your records are expired. Everything on you is expired so they cancelled your contract."

The recruit said he was given few further details.

Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney and retired Army lieutenant colonel, developed the MAVNI program and said she's been hearing a lot of stories like that about discharges.

"There has absolutely been up uptick," she said. "I would say at least 40 people have contacted my office. But I'm not the only lawyer in America and I'm not the only lawyer everybody's calling."

Program brings controversy, security concerns

The MAVNI program began in 2008 during the George W. Bush administration.

"There was an effort throughout the U.S. military and intelligence communities to try to get more people working for the government who spoke foreign languages," Stock said. "However, the MAVNI program was also expanded at the request of the Department of Defense to include U.S. licensed healthcare professionals, because there was a dire shortage of such individuals in the ranks of the military.

But controversy has surrounded the program almost since its inception. Several times, the government altered or suspended the program because of logistic problems, security concerns, or worries that some of the recruits may be foreign infiltrators.

"You had those that were from countries that wished to do us harm and continue to attack us or try to infiltrate us through our intelligence means - whatever they can acquire," said Rep. Steven Russell, an Oklahoma Republican who sits on the House Armed Services committee.

In 2016, the Defense Department stopped accepting new applicants and began imposing heavier background checks on those who already applied. But Stock said those more extensive checks have resulted in a long backlog of applications.

"They ordered up so many background checks that they didn't have the resources to complete them," Stock said. "It appears that they're trying to solve the problem by discharging people, and they're using the excuse that they failed a personnel security screening."

Stock said she's seen no evidence of serious wrongdoing by MAVNI recruits and questions whether such evidence exists.

"When you talk to the Pentagon, they keep hiding behind classified reports," she said. "How come there are no public prosecutions? No public terrorism investigations? No court martials? No denaturalizations? There's zero public information to indicate that there's some kind of major risk from this program."

Future uncertain as lawsuits loom

Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Carla Gleason would not comment of specific threats presented by the MAVNI program, pending litigation. But she said in an email that the Defense Department is trying to address the background checks.

"Because MAVNI recruits are foreign nationals who are not permanent residents of the United States, and because of limitations in the Department's ability to verify information in the individual's home country, the security screening required for these individuals can be difficult and time consuming," she said.

Gleason noted that two-thirds of applicants eventually make it through the security screening process and go on to serve.

In July, one MAVNI recruit challenged his discharge in court. The plaintiff, Army reservist Lucas Calixto, charged that the Army broke its own rules by not giving him due process.

But just before the case went to trial, the Army backed down and reinstated him. University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck said that calls into question whether the Army's security concerns had any real basis.

"The question that Calixto's lawsuit raised was whether the Army really did have any good reason for what it did," Vladeck said. "The fact that the response was basically to give up and surrender suggests that there may never have been a reason in the first place."

Other lawsuits are pending, and Vladeck said they may push the government to come up with concrete justification for the discharges.

Meanwhile, Congressman Russell, a former Army officer, would prefer to see the program eliminated. He said he supports recruiting immigrants into the military but said the MAVNI program presents too many obstacles.

"The program is more problem than it's worth," he said. "It's not the only means to acquire skill, nor was the military unable to acquire skill before somebody came up with MAVNI."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


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