WASHINGTON — Their brains, specialized talents and home country made them sought-after assets for the U.S. military.
Now these ambitious, well-educated Army recruits are finding themselves sidelined and under suspicion, many stalled wherever they were when the rules changed in late 2016. For some, that means being stuck under the restrictive rules of basic training or Army job specialty training in essential lockdown with few privileges, little to do and, as foreigners pending permanent immigration status, uncertainty about their futures.
Since 2009, the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program has attracted 10,000 foreign-born recruits with language and medical skills to fill a recruitment and talent gap in the Army. In exchange, these mostly 30-somethings were offered the promise of professional advancement and a fast track to citizenship. But that stalled after the Department of Defense determined in September 2016 that MAVNIs posed “counterintelligence and security risks” (further detailed in a May 2017 memo) and instituted lengthy security screenings for every recruit in the program.
Many MAVNIs in basic training or the next level, known as advanced individual training, have been held over at these entry points, spending a year or longer under harsh conditions in units that are supposed to host soldiers for just weeks or months.
They can’t work in their fields or use their skills. Several, particularly those who have not naturalized, describe strict rules, where they are required to walk across base with a buddy, cannot drive or drink alcohol, have limited if any permission to the leave the base and are stuck with almost nothing to do but basic chores.
Army memos obtained by Stars and Stripes confirm that beginning in November 2016 – just weeks after the Pentagon instituted the enhanced background checks – the Army deputy chief of staff of personnel issued a “stop move” order, barring MAVNIs from traveling until they had “completed all phases of security investigations” and received “favorable adjudication.” The documents outline the level of privileges that MAVNI holdovers are given, depending on what stage of training they’d completed.
Naturalized soldiers had less onerous restrictions – they could get an overnight pass to leave base with brigade commander approval. Those without U.S. passports were more restricted. The documents, from November 2016 to February 2018, show that many of the restrictions on MAVNIs are still in place.
“They won’t give them any privileges, they are stuck on base,” said Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer and retired Army lieutenant colonel who was instrumental in creating the MAVNI program and ran it for several years.
“It’s this kind of mindless bureaucracy, in which they are just going to discriminate against a whole group of people and don’t think about the repercussions of what they are doing,” she said. “There is no concern for the soldier’s well-being or morale.”
For soldiers stuck in these predicaments, frustration is mixed with a sense of foreboding. They are foreigners tainted by suspicion – national assets now labeled as possible national threats. They are unsure whether they have started life as Americans or are treading water as soldiers only to be deported from the country they consider their home.
“We are in a state of fear,” one holdover said. “We don’t know who to trust.”
Fear of backlash
The Department of Defense declined to answer questions or release details about MAVNI recruits stuck in these restrictive conditions, citing ongoing litigation and “out of respect to the legal process.” There are at least two class-action lawsuits filed by MAVNI Army reservists seeking resolution on related issues, but those lawsuits do not include all MAVNIs, including those on active duty. And the lawsuits are limited in scope.
Pentagon spokesman Maj. David Eastburn said that the department “is not facilitating interviews with MAVNIs at this time.” Eastburn repeated one of two answers he gave to several Stars and Stripes questions stating that servicemembers are free to speak in a personal non-military capacity, as long as they are not on base. But many of these MAVNIs are not allowed off base, and nearly all who spoke with Stars and Stripes said they wished to remain anonymous, fearing discrimination and backlash from higher-ups who could influence their fates.
“Before I joined the military I never had a brush with the law,” said one 30-year-old MAVNI – a science lover who holds bachelor’s degrees in zoology with an emphasis on medicine, biochemistry and biotechnology, and has a master’s in pharmacology. He has been waiting to naturalize since he began basic training in mid-2016, he said.
“I worked in the ER, did research. I even helped discover a new drug,” he said. “Now that I joined the military, I am labeled a security threat. If I am under arrest, tell me what I am accused of. They can’t just hold us as prisoners.”
Another MAVNI recruit with a master’s degree who got stuck after an injury at basic training described disdain from officers in the unit because of the “MAVNI tag.”
“We don’t have protection coming from the top,” she said. “If the protections and the right guidance are not coming from them, what can we expect from people who work on more operational things in the field? Because of this, we are in a state of fear. We don’t know who to trust.”
Stock, a fierce advocate for MAVNIs, charged that the Pentagon was discriminating when it cast suspicion on the group as a whole, violating its own policies of equal opportunity.
“You don’t decide you are going to do crazy vetting on 10,000 people because you think one is a spy,” she said.
“They turned a positive program that was helping national security into a train wreck that is ruining people’s lives,” she said. “And they’ve done more harm to national security with harming the program than they did to help it with all this vetting.”
The Army memos
On Nov. 7, 2016, just one week after the Pentagon introduced the new set of security screenings for the MAVNIs, the Army’s deputy chief of staff of personnel, Lt. Gen. James McConville, issued a document withholding travel orders for soldiers in the program until they completed the screening requirements.
Screening for MAVNIs entailed more background checks than for ordinary soldiers, and more were introduced in 2016, including an in-depth counterintelligence review and interview. The screenings are laborious and time-consuming. An office at the Pentagon is tasked with reviewing each case to decide whether the soldier is suitable for service.
A second document signed by Maj. Gen. Anthony Funkhouser, under the heading U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training at Fort Eustis, Va., detailed the privileges these soldiers would be given under the “extended hold status.”
“MAVNIs will remain under the IET (initial entry training) unit and governing regulation and will not be moved to permanent party units or control,” the document said.
The documents, along with others obtained by Stars and Stripes from a lawyer investigating the issue, confirm that MAVNI holdovers were mostly limited to the same privileges as their fresh-out-of-high-school fellow recruits, who would come through these training points and move on.
“I’ve watched people who came through basic or AIT (advanced individual training) after me become sergeants, and here I am sitting here,” said one AIT holdover – who graduated college with a dual major in chemical biology and mathematics in three years because she was eager to get to medical school. A reservist, her progression stalled after completing AIT in February 2017.
Reservists who got stuck mid-process and are not naturalized are in a real bind. Once they complete entry training, they work for the Army only two days a month. Their student visas or work permits have expired. Without citizenship, they have no legal status to work or even renew a driver’s license.
The soldier’s student visa expired while she waited for naturalization. So had her passport from her country of origin, which is under threat from the Islamic militant group ISIS.
She can’t go back and she can’t move forward.
She needs a battle buddy to go most places on base and, though she’s been given the privilege of leaving base, her sergeant needs to know where she is at all times. She said she’s become known as the “problem soldier” because no one knows what to do with her.
“If I had known this would happen, I would have been back home,” she said.
In his Nov. 7, 2016, memo, Funkhouser wrote that “if naturalization is not complete this should be a priority of each command to ensure this process is completed as soon as possible.” It added that no reserve MAVNIs will be released from active duty until naturalization is complete.
Asked about these documents and stories from holdovers stuck on its bases, the Army deferred comment. Instead, a spokeswoman shared a 2017 general document outlining privileges that soldiers receive and said all other questions should go through the Pentagon.
Along with instituting the enhanced screenings, the Pentagon in October 2017 changed the rules on naturalization, creating a lot of confusion for MAVNIs.
According to Oct. 13, 2017 documents, foreign-born legal permanent residents who joined the military would no longer be eligible to naturalize after one day of service during combat time – which is what is stated in current immigration and naturalization law. Rather, they would have to serve 180 days to be eligible.
But while the policy change said that “these changes reflect lessons learned from the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest pilot program,” the change appeared to be directed at legal permanent residents – green card holders, who are different than MAVNIs.
In any case, the MAVNI program had already been halted. The Defense Department stopped recruiting under MAVNI in late 2016 and let authorization for the program expire in September 2017. The Pentagon cited the logjam in security clearances; it’s unclear whether the program will be reinstated.
In one of the MAVNI class action lawsuits, the 180-day requirement was determined not to be retroactive for MAVNI recruits. But the same proceedings decided that the Pentagon’s 2016 enhanced security checks were retroactive. MAVNIs, no matter when they enlisted, would not be issued the necessary Defense Department paperwork to naturalize until their security screenings were completed and adjudicated favorably.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it would work with the Pentagon.
“We work hand in hand,” said Arwen FitzGerald, a spokeswoman for USCIS in San Antonio, Texas.
“To change immigration law requires an act of Congress,” she said. “We are following DoD policy.”
With policies so unclear and clarification being hashed out in a limited capacity in court, many holdovers find answers hard to come by. Field-level Army units dealing with these holdovers have different understandings of these policies.
One holdover who has been stuck at basic training described submitting her naturalization paperwork on her first day. She’s spent the last year and a half trying to keep track of it. At one point she said it was lost; later it was sent to an old address for her to sign. She did not receive it until months later. Then, when she sent back the signed document, she said she was told the form was an old version and she needed to submit a new one. In early 2017, she said she was told that naturalizations were on hold. They resumed shortly over the summer, then halted again, she said.
In January, USCIS closed naturalization offices at three military training bases. FitzGerald said that with the 180-day rule change, recruits were not eligible for naturalization during basic training, so it no longer paid to have those offices open.
For holdovers awaiting their security screenings, that is probably the case. But remaining MAVNIs are shipping out to basic training only after security checks have been completed. Many have served six months by the time they ship out. They would be eligible for naturalization during basic training. Closing those field offices made that impossible.
‘Pending background check’
The military has not released precise figures of how many holdovers are stagnating on Army bases.
There appears to be little consistency in who moves forward and who is held back. Some active-duty MAVNIs got naturalized early but are stuck at initial entry training, while others have made it into combat units – even though they are not citizens.
One MAVNI soldier graduated college with a near perfect GPA, got a master’s in aviation science and then, with language and science skills, he joined the Army, deploying to Afghanistan – and later Iraq – repairing combat aircraft while weathering incoming rockets.
Even after deploying, the 34-year-old immigrant from China said he feels stuck and at risk. His student visa expired since he joined the Army in 2015. His wife’s did too. He deployed to Afghanistan in December 2016 wondering if she and their young son would be deported before he got back.
Now he checks the status of his citizenship application constantly with immigration officials. He’s written to his senator and gone through his command. The answer is always the same: “The reply is my case is pending background check,” he said.
Another MAVNI graduated his job specialty training before the rules changed, but his naturalization never went through. He inquires regularly with Defense and immigration authorities. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told him that he needed a counterintelligence screening, which wasn’t required when he came in. So he went to his command’s intelligence officer to see about the screening. The soldier is not on the list, the intelligence officer told him. Getting on that list – well, that was beyond the scope of the officer, the soldier said.
He said he feels lucky that he’s been able to come this far, but he’s up against a wall. He can’t commission and worries even a promotion to sergeant will be off the table until he becomes a citizen.
Meanwhile, his command is unaware of his status. He worries that should it come to light, he’d be in even worse shape.
“So I am stuck,” he said. “My case has been forgotten. It’s like a blessing and a curse at the same time.”
Stock, who hears from MAVNIs facing these roadblocks almost daily, said she is aware of a MAVNI who was deployed to Europe with her family before September 2016. They were just about to ship home when the new rules were handed down, along with the “stop move order.” Her husband and children had returned to the states, but she is a holdover, sitting on a base in Europe awaiting her security screenings.
Another holdover is stuck in Korea. His wife is an Army soldier stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington. In an email to Stock that the soldier gave permission for Stars and Stripes to use, he said his wife is living off post, but they are not eligible for housing allowance until he receives his orders to move. The situation is negatively impacting their financial situation, he said, and it is damaging their marriage.
“There are also a few other MAVNIs in my unit that are experiencing the same issue, ma’am,” he wrote. “Is there anything my chain of command or myself can do to resolve this issue?”