Earlier this month, a report from the Associated Press that about 40 immigrant recruits had been discharged from the Army’s Delayed Entry Program, or DEP, drew attention and made the rounds on social media, prompting outrage by some alleging discriminatory treatment. And while this is unfortunate and does leave the immigration status of these recruits in questions, it’s nothing new.
Most recruits, regardless of their country of origin, will spend some time in DEP, usually a few weeks to a few months after they have signed their commitment contract with the military and when they depart for boot camp. During that time, the military conducts a number of screenings on recruits to be sure that they are suitably qualified for service.
The recruits in question joined the military under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, also known as MAVNI. Under this program, which began in 2009, those immigrants with specialized language or medical skills in the country lawfully on certain types of visas could serve in the military. Upon completing 180 days of honorable service, they would be eligible for expedited naturalization.
But there were problems with this program from the start. It was never vetted by Congress, instead being enacted by executive order and has experienced a number of challenges.
Shortly after its inception, the tragic shooting at Fort Hood took place, prompting real concerns about security from immigrant soldiers, particularly those of Middle Eastern decent, despite the fact that the shooter was an American citizen.
In response, more stringent layers of security checks were put in place. President Obama later changed the program to allow so-called “Dreamers” a path to citizenship, something that has since ended.
But President Trump added even more layers of security screenings, creating a log jam of recruit files and causing some recruits to wait for years in DEP or as drilling reservists waiting to be accepted into active duty.
Despite serving honorably as reservists, earning paychecks and promotions from the military, they are given the pink slip, often with no explanation, instead of being activated to active duty as was originally promised. This is where the situation gets complicated and lawyers get involved.
Many of these recruits are stuck in potentially dangerous situations and only spoke to the AP under condition of anonymity because their lives and those of their families could be in danger in their country of origin. They came to the United States legally desiring to be citizens and feel like they were betrayed for doing things the right way and attempting to serve the country they have come to love.
It is unclear whether or not these recruits could apply for asylum due to the danger their enlistments could pose.
One service member from Pakistan said he was told by phone call that his military career was over. The AP reviewed parts of his military file and he was found to be so loyal to the U.S. that his connections to family in Pakistan would not pose a security threat. But he was still separated anyway.
“There were so many tears in my eyes that my hands couldn’t move fast enough to wipe them away,” he told the AP. “I was devastated, because I love the U.S. and was so honored to be able to serve this great country.”
Another service member of Iranian decent who came to the US legally to pursue a graduate degree said he was proud of “pursuing everything legally and living an honorable life.”
“It’s terrible because I put my life in the line for this country, but I feel like I’m being treated like trash,” he said. “If I am not eligible to become a U.S. citizen, I am really scared to return to my country.”
It would seem that the problem reported by the AP is limited to the Army. The Marine Corps is still accepting immigrants in the country on permanent resident status. This is separate from the MAVNI program, as the Corps opted not to participate in the program. They currently have about 830 recruits in DEP that fall into this category.
The Coast Guard also admits lawful resident aliens; however, it is only for a first enlistment. They must be naturalized citizens in order to re-enlist.
The Air Force currently has no recruits in the MAVNI program, though they did participate in the program through 2016.
The Navy did not respond to requests for information.
While it may seem alarming to have 40 recruits administratively separated from DEP, that’s only 40 of the 1,100 currently waiting. According to Pentagon Spokesperson Air Force Major Carla Gleason, two-thirds of these recruits will go on to serve honorable.
In fact, data from the RAND Corporation shows that MAVNI service members turn out to be exceptional assets. They routinely out perform their fellow service members in a variety of areas. In 2012, the Army’s Soldier of the Year was a Nepalese sergeant named Saral K. Shrestha.
In the last few years, a group of attorneys have been fighting to keep these recruits eligible for naturalization, despite the log jam of delays in background investigations. Nearly 50 have been successful.
“Some of our clients have finally emerged through the system and at least are doing basic training,” said Donald Friedman, a Washington attorney with Perkins Coie.