Pentagon Says It’s Not Purging Immigrant Recruits, Contrary to Reports

Military Recruit Poster
Nati Harnick/AP

The Pentagon said Friday that contrary to what an Associated Press report has suggested, there are no new changes to a program for immigrants to gain U.S. citizenship through military service.

The Associated Press reported on Thursday evening that some “U.S. Army reservists and recruits who enlisted in the military with a promised path to citizenship are being abruptly discharged.”

However, the Pentagon said there have been no new policies or guideline changes to prompt any discharges from the program. Rather, any discharges are based on initial security screening of each candidate.

The Army could not comment on specific persons mentioned in the AP’s story due to privacy issues and pending litigation, but released a statement on Friday in response.

“Department of Defense and Army policy require all recruits to undergo a suitability review as part of the military accessions process. One aspect of the suitability review is a security screening,” Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Nina Hill said.

“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,” she said. “Each recruit undergoes an individualized suitability review and the length of time for the review is dependent upon each individual’s unique background.“

The security screening is done by the Department of Defense Consolidated Adjudications Facility, which then makes a recommendation on each recruit to the Army or relevant military service based on their review.

The AP story was unable to say how many discharges from the program there have been, but unnamed immigration lawyers say they know of “more than 40 who have been discharged or whose status has become questionable.”

The AP article cited one immigrant on-the-record, 28-year-old Brazilian Lucas Calixto, who last week filed a lawsuit against the Army for being discharged from the program. It referenced, but did not name, other recruits from Pakistan and Iran, and another 26-year-old woman from Dominica.

Also cited in AP’s story is immigration lawyer Margaret Stock, a retired lieutenant Army colonel, who helped to create the MAVNI program in 2009. She and her husband both work at a law firm that specializes in immigration law.

She also administers Facebook groups where she guides MAVNI recruits through the recruitment process. It is not clear from the report whether she or her husband are representing any of the recruits suing the Army for administrative discharges.

On Tuesday, she asked on Facebook for those who were discharged to contact her.

“If you are a MAVNI, who has suddenly been told that you have been discharged, please [private message] me. I am trying to get a “head count” on how many people might be affected by the recent spate of discharges. This is URGENT. There will be a news story tomorrow,” she wrote.

The AP story published Thursday evening.

The AP’s story also suggested that law firm Perkins Coie was involved. The law firm represented the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential elections.

Donald Friedman, a Perkins Coie attorney in Washington, DC, told the AP: “Some of our clients have finally emerged through the system and at least are doing basic training.”

The MAVNI program was established in 2009, to recruit immigrants who speak critical languages like Chinese or Urdu, or have specialized medical skills. Spanish is not considered a critical language. Most of the recruits who apply are from Asia and Africa, defense officials said.

In 2014, the Obama administration allowed participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to apply to MAVNI, which ground the program to a halt.

Defense officials at the time said that MAVNI was not appropriately geared towards DACA participants, since those applying to MAVNI had to have legal status and DACA participants did not have legal status, or any papers to prove they were in the country legally.

That change caused the Pentagon to try to retool the program, to account for those who did not have legal status. As the logjam grew, the program ground to a halt. MAVNI, which was on an experimental basis, expired in September 2017, but those who had signed contracts were grandfathered in.

Sometime before March, the Pentagon implemented a change to the program. Before, recruits could go through basic training while awaiting security screening. The new change required that they complete the security screening before going to basic training. Defense officials said this was to avoid a situation where the recruits had finished basic training, but were not able to do anything at their bases until passing their security screening.

The Pentagon said there have been more than 10,000 applicants to the program to date.

About 9,000 of them have had their status adjudicated — either accepted into the program or administratively discharged pending a security check. Hundreds of those were reportedly separated. Defense officials said that is normal, based on the outcome of their security screening.

As of April 2018, there were 1,100 recruits still awaiting adjudication.

Pentagon officials explained that even if a recruit had signed an enlistment contract, taken an oath, begun drilling with their units, and started receiving military pay, if they had not yet gone through a security screening and started basic training, they were not yet formally enlisted.

Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Carla Gleason said as the remaining applicants are adjudicated, she expects that the number of those discharged from the program will continue growing.

The AP story said there are “more than 40 who have been discharged or whose status has become questionable,” but Gleason said she expects that number will eventually be much higher, as recruits complete screening.

Many of those who have not yet passed their security screening have backgrounds that have been the most difficult for investigators to verify, a defense official said.

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