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World: Army suspends its purge of immigrant recruits

A handful of the discharged recruits sued in federal court, prompting widespread media coverage of the purge last month. The Army has halt...

A handful of the discharged recruits sued in federal court, prompting widespread media coverage of the purge last month.

The Army has halted forcible discharges of soldiers who were recruited through a program that offers citizenship to skilled immigrants in exchange for military service. But it is not clear whether the step puts an end to the expulsion policy or is just a pause in the Army’s effort to curtail a program its leaders say poses a security risk.

In recent months, dozens of recruits in the program, known as Military Accessions Vital to National Interests, or MAVNI, have been abruptly discharged from the service, often with little or no explanation.

A handful of the discharged recruits sued in federal court, prompting widespread media coverage of the purge last month. The Army then ordered a halt to the discharges in a memorandum dated July 20.

“Effective immediately, you will suspend processing of all involuntary separation actions,” Marshall Williams, the acting assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, wrote in the order, adding that he should be notified personally before a determination is made in any discharge case involving a MAVNI recruit.

The memorandum was made public Wednesday as part of a court filing.

Recruits in the program still do not know whether the Army will allow them to complete their service and get citizenship, or is merely buying time while it rethinks its strategy for forcing them out.

The Army, in a brief statement, said only that it had stopped the discharges “in order to conduct a review of the administrative separation process.”

Beverly Cutler, a retired judge who represents a number of recruits pro bono, said the order “may just prolong the agony.”

“The Army may go through all of this and still discharge them at a later time,” Cutler said.

The policy change was ordered less than two weeks after the discharges were widely reported in the news media, and four days after the Army reversed at least one of the discharges. The recruit in that case had sued, arguing he had been denied any chance to appeal his discharge.

For decades, the Pentagon’s policy was to allow only citizens and permanent residents to join the military. The MAVNI program was created during the George W. Bush administration to allow certain immigrants who were in the country legally but not permanently to enlist and get fast-tracked citizenship, if they possessed abilities the military needed.

The soldiers were recruited mainly for their language skills or medical training. Many speak strategically important languages like Chinese, Korean or Russian. Many have college degrees, and some are medical doctors. More than 10,000 troops have joined the military through the program since it began in 2008, almost all of them serving in the Army.

In recent years, though, the Defense Department has tightened its vetting of immigrant recruits. Now, soldiers joining up to be clerks, mechanics and surgeons face the kinds of extensive background checks that were formerly conducted for troops who needed top secret clearance. The added layers of scrutiny include screenings by the CIA and FBI, a review of at least a decade’s worth of personal finances, an exhaustive questionnaire and numerous lengthy interviews.

The new requirements made processing each recruit take much longer, and the backlog of reviews piled up into the thousands. Many recruits have been waiting for years to get the clearances they need to advance in their military careers, and in some cases, Cutler said, the process has dragged on so long that screenings done at the beginning have since expired and must be done over again. Then the Army started pushing the recruits out.

“They were being discharged even if there was not a security concern,” she said. “These are often highly skilled individuals; many have master’s degrees.”

In a court filing in July, government lawyers called the MAVNI program an “elevated security risk” and said that some recruits had provided false information to obtain student visas and that others had friends who were associated with foreign intelligence organizations.

However, a 2017 report by the RAND Corp. found no evidence the MAVNI program had caused any security problems. The report, which has not been officially released, found that the program’s recruits were generally better educated and performed better than the average enlisted soldier, and had not been involved in terrorism or espionage.

The military may want to curtail the MAVNI program simply because it has become an administrative headache, clogged with too many regulations, said Margaret Stock, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who helped create the program and is now an immigration lawyer representing some MAVNI soldiers.

She said that many highly qualified soldiers who are discharged are told that they failed background checks because they had “foreign ties.”

“It’s the height of absurdity,” Stock said. “The Army spends millions to screen foreigners to figure out that they have foreign ties. The real story is that they are looking for some way to get them out.”

A class-action lawsuit filed Friday in Washington claims that soldiers were discharged “not because of any misconduct by plaintiffs, but rather because the Army either did not want to expend the resources necessary to complete the background investigations, or they could not do so.”

Xionghou Zhang is one of the soldiers pushed out of the program. He entered the United States from China on a student visa in 2014 and enlisted in 2016. He got a degree in management, married, had a child and waited to be called to active duty as a logistics specialist. But the Army told him this spring that he was out, with no way to appeal.

“All they told me was, I was unsuitable,” said Zhang, who lives in Rochester, New York.

A few days after an article in The New York Times related his story, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents appeared at his door and told him he was going to be deported. The next hearing in his deportation proceedings is scheduled for October.

“I wish I could go back to the Army — this job means a lot to me,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I need to provide for my family. And also, the uniform gives me respect — it would be an honor to serve.”

The ICE agents told him he was a flight risk, he said, and made him and his wife wear GPS tracking bracelets around their ankles.

“We never violated the immigration laws,” he said. “It was the Army that broke the contract. But with the bracelets, we feel like criminals. My wife is very ashamed. When we go out, we wear long pants.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

DAVE PHILIPPS © 2018 The New York Times

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