Individuals who enlisted in the army through a program that expedited their citizenship have been quietly discharged in recent weeks leading to speculation that the Trump administration is slowly revoking their status in addition to having suspended the program in recent months.
The story was first reported by The Associated Press.
Former President George W. Bush created a program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, in 2002 in an effort to quickly grow the military’s ranks. The country was still recovering from the September 11th attacks and was about to begin the Iraq War.
The idea behind MAVNI was to bring medical specialists and speakers of forty-four in-demand languages into the military so the Department of Defense could “recognize their contribution and sacrifice.” MAVNI called for “expedited naturalization” for immigrant soldiers. Seven years after it was created it became an official recruitment program.
The program became controversial during the Obama administration when former President Barack Obama added DACA recipients to the program’s eligibility. (DACA recipients are undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country illegally but at a very young age.)
The armed forces, in its response, added several layers of security before enlistees could be accepted into the program. The Trump administration added several more security hurdles resulting in a backlog at the DoD, before ultimately suspended the program altogether last year.
The AP was not able to determine the exact number of those affected by the decisions but attorneys put the number at more than forty enlistees who have either been discharged or whose status has become uncertain.
“It was my dream to serve in the military,” said reservist Lucas Calixto. “Since this country has been so good to me, I thought it was the least I could do to give back to my adopted country and serve in the United States military.”
“Now the great feeling I had when I enlisted is going down the drain,” he added. “I don’t understand why this is happening.”
Calixto, 28, came to the U.S. when he was 12, and lives in Massachusetts. He says he found out he had been removed from the Army after being recently promoted to private second class.
He has since filed a lawsuit against the Pentagon, alleging he was not given the change to defend himself or appeal. The DoD gave him no reason for his discharge other than “personnel security,” he says.
Other immigrants, one from Pakistan and one from Iran for example, have also been discharged in recent weeks. Both said they were told that ties to family members living abroad were reasons for their dismissals.
“There were so many tears in my eyes that my hands couldn’t move fast enough to wipe them away,” the Pakistani service member said. “I was devastated, because I love the U.S. and was so honored to be able to serve this great country.”
“It’s terrible because I put my life in the line for this country, but I feel like I’m being treated like trash. If I am not eligible to become a U.S. citizen, I am really scared to return to my country,” said the Iranian enlistee.
Both asked their names be withheld because of the belief that if they are forced to return to their native countries they may face reprisal for joining the U.S. military.
The Pentagon told the AP that “All service members (i.e. contracted recruits, active duty, Guard and Reserve) and those with an honorable discharge are protected from deportation.”
But attorneys for the immigrants say that the ones who were let go were given an “uncharacterized discharge,” – neither dishonorable nor honorable.
More than 5,000 immigrants joined the Armed Forces through the program in 2016. An estimated 10,000 are currently serving. Most are in the Army, but there are some in the other military branches as well.
The change in status of the MAVNI program was welcomed by some on Capitol Hill. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), who has supported legislation limiting the program, said MAVNI was created by executive order and never authorized legislatively by Congress, therefore it should be scaled back.
“Our military must prioritize enlisting American citizens, and restore the MAVNI program to its specialized, limited scope,” he told the AP.
Photo by U.S. Air Force