With Promise of Fast Track to Citizenship in Doubt, Some Foreign-Born Soldiers Flee
In the context of vocal, sustained hostility toward immigration, travel bans and deportation raids have dominated the national dialogue. But recently, news reports have started highlighting a little-discussed group of noncitizens bracing for the effects of restrictive policies on their own lawful stay in the country: foreign-born soldiers who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Rather than face potential deportation from the country they served, many of these soldiers are choosing to flee to countries including Australia, Canada, and Germany—and are openly discussing it.
Inaugurated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) on a pilot basis in 2009, the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, program offers certain foreign nationals with specialized health care or language skills—particularly Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Pashto—an expedited route to naturalization in exchange for service in the U.S. Armed Forces. Since its debut, more than 10,000 troops have participated in the program, filling the gap in skills identified by DOD to be scarce among U.S.-born troops and in the end becoming naturalized citizens. Of the four branches of the U.S. military, the Army is the principal user of the MAVNI program. A significant share of MAVNI recruits hail from China and South Korea.
Program Changes, Life Consequences
The long-term viability of the program first came into question publicly last September, when DOD instituted heightened vetting procedures to preempt potential infiltration of MAVNI recruits by hostile actors. Changes to the protocols have resulted in a severe backlog in recruits’ completion of the program’s requirements, principally the security clearance stage, causing the entire cohort of these soldiers to experience uncertainty as to whether their route to naturalization via military service will be honored. Subsequently, the Army announced that it would cease accepting MAVNI candidates for the next year. And shortly thereafter, officials at DOD recommended canceling existing enlistment contracts for nearly 2,000 recruits awaiting orders for basic training—and suggested ultimately ending the MAVNI program entirely.
Just last month, news outlets published the details of another, more recent DOD memo discussing a plan to cancel the military enlistment contracts of 1,000 MAVNI recruits currently lacking legal immigration status. The uncovered DOD memo also looked into the legality of continuing to vet and surveil an additional 4,100 MAVNI troops, the majority of whom have already earned citizenship.
Dismissal from the program would place MAVNI participants in a precarious situation, exposing them to deportation. Particularly worrisome to these recruits is that the government already has all the information Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) would need to initiate fast, targeted removal proceedings: legal names, places of residence, and current immigration status. Compounding this worry is news of a Trump administration proposal to significantly enhance the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) deportation powers.
The repercussions of deporting foreign-born soldiers who served the country are more than morally or ethically distasteful. Deportation to hostile countries is apt to result in imprisonment—or worse—of these soldiers. Recruits from Iraq are likely face the ire of militants, for example, while Chinese-born MAVNI recruits may be subject to a charge of treason, the punishment of which ranges from 10 years of imprisonment to death.
The contents of the published DOD memoranda are concerning, and officials must be more forthcoming about the proposals discussed therein. After promising MAVNI recruits a noble exchange—service in the U.S. military for swift naturalization—it is unconscionable for the government to mull cancelation of enlistment contracts while acknowledging the resultant potential for MAVNI recruits’ deportation.
Zhang & Associates is proud to count MAVNI participants among our clients. Our firm is heartened at the pushback the government has received, including by lawmakers, in the wake of these reports, and we remain hopeful any legitimate issues with the program will be resolved transparently and compassionately.
This is a developing news story, and as more information becomes available, updates will be published on our news section.
Former U.S. Consular officer, Attorney Sechyi Laiu joined Zhang & Associates, P.C. on June 26, 2017
At Zhang & Associates, P.C., Attorney Laiu specializes on Consular Processing cases and business development. Attorney Laiu also focuses on TN visas, E visas, CBP administrative proceedings (monetary confiscation, deferred inspection), and overseas financial compliance.
Prior to joining Zhang & Associates, P.C., Attorney Laiu worked for the U.S. Department of State as a Chinese and Portuguese speaking diplomat. As a consular-coned officer who served in Vancouver (Canada), Shenyang (P.R. China), and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Attorney Laiu processed over 30,000 visa cases and worked in every section of Consular Affairs overseas (Fraud Prevention Unit, Immigrant Visas, Non-Immigrant Visas, and American Citizen Services).
He will use his experience and expertise to deliver the highest quality of service to our clients.
Founded in 1996, Zhang & Associates, P.C. offers legal services to clients worldwide in all aspects of U.S immigration law. We have successfully handled over ten thousand immigration cases.
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