Emails show the VA took no action to spare veterans from a harsh Trump immigration policy


VIDEO: How Mexican cartels press deported U.S. military veterans into service

Top officials of the Department of Veterans Affairs declined to step in to try to exempt veterans and their families from a new immigration rule that would make it far easier to deny green cards to low-income immigrants, according to documents obtained by ProPublica under a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Department of Defense, on the other hand, worked throughout 2018 to minimize the new policy's impact on military families.

As a result, the regulation, which goes into effect in October, applies just as strictly to veterans and their families as it does to the broader public, while active-duty members of the military and reserve forces face a relaxed version of the rule.

Under the so-called public charge regulation, which became final last week, immigrants seeking permanent legal status in the U.S. will be subject to a complex new test to determine if they will rely on public benefits. Among the factors that immigration officers will consider are whether the applicant has frequently used public benefits in the past, their household income, education level and credit scores.

Active-duty military members can accept public benefits without jeopardizing their future immigration status; veterans and their families, however, cannot.

The rule, which could reshape the face of legal immigration to the U.S., is one of the highest-profile changes to the immigration system undertaken by the administration of President Donald Trump. An initial proposed version of the rule received over 266,000 public comments, the vast majority in opposition. Three lawsuits challenging the policy were quickly filed: one by a coalition of 13 states and filed in Washington state, one by San Francisco and Santa Clara County in California, and one by a coalition of nonprofit groups in California.

Because the new rule creates a complex and subjective test, it's impossible to predict precisely how many veterans and their families who otherwise qualify for green cards will now be rejected. (The Department of Homeland Security told reporters last Monday that it hasn't analyzed how many people would most likely be denied green cards under the new rule.)

However, documents tracking the regulation's development show that the DOD was concerned enough that the rule would harm military families that it worked with DHS to limit the regulation, ultimately securing the benefits exemption for active-duty military members.

The reasons for the VA's inaction are unclear. The agency referred all questions to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment. During the six months officials had to weigh in on the new regulation, the VA lacked permanent leaders in several top positions while juggling several major initiatives, which fell behind schedule or failed.

"They should be the foremost government agency that's fighting for protections for veterans," said Jeremy Butler, chief executive officer of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "If they have a 'No Comment,' that says to me that it wasn't given the time and attention and research necessary to understand how it would affect the veteran community."

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who sits on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a statement to ProPublica, "It's despicable that the Trump Administration is punishing veterans who sacrificed for our country simply for using the support services they've earned."

He added, "Instead of tearing down military families, the President should be working to support those who've done so much for our country."

In practice, the exemption the DOD won for active-duty military members is a narrow one. While the frequent use of public benefits is a "heavily weighted negative factor" in determining whether to block an immigrant under the new rule, members of the military and their families are still subject to the other factors weighed by immigration officers when applying for green cards.

But narrow as it is, no such exemption exists for veterans and their families, so using public benefits — as well as other factors like having meager savings — will count against them if they or their families apply for green cards.

"If they care about the active-duty people, I don't know why they don't care about military veterans who aren't doing very well," said Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney with many military clients. Stock helped create a special program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, which created a pathway for military enlistment for refugees, undocumented young people, foreign students and others who lack green cards.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the DHS agency that is implementing the rule, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

The new policy is a signature effort of the Trump administration and builds on a long-standing law that bars immigration by people deemed to be "public charges." But the law does not define the term. In 1999, the Clinton administration narrowly defined it to mean someone who "primarily" depends on the government for subsistence, either through cash welfare or long-term care funded by the government.

The new regulation lowers the bar to be considered a "public charge" by redefining it as an immigrant who receives certain types of public benefits for more than 12 months in a three-year period. If an immigrant receives two benefits in a single month, that would count as two months.

The public charge test applies to people entering the country or those trying to become lawful permanent residents, commonly known as green card holders. It does not apply to those who already have green cards and are seeking citizenship.

Noncitizens have long served in the U.S. military, often contributing specific needed skills such as sought-after foreign language fluency. Census data shows that about 100,000 noncitizen veterans live in the U.S., according to a ProPublica analysis of data provided by the University of Minnesota's IPUMS, which collects and distributes census data. Most of them already have permanent status, Stock said.

It's not clear exactly how many veterans do not have green cards or have spouses who don't. Since 2008, about 10,000 people have joined the military through the MAVNI program, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan immigration research group. But the program is currently not accepting applications.

In practice, the public charge rule is more likely to affect veterans' families — such as spouses who are undocumented or on temporary visas — rather than veterans themselves. Under federal law, undocumented immigrants and temporary visa holders are generally not eligible for public benefits.

"A lot of veterans end up marrying women or men that don't have green cards; that happens very often," said Hector Barajas, who leads an advocacy group called Deported Veterans Support House. "There is a population of people that will be affected."

The White House began seeking agency comments on March 29, 2018. An official at the Office of Management and Budget emailed officials from 19 agencies, including the VA, attaching a draft of the regulation and asking for comments. The email was sent one day after the VA secretary at the time, David Shulkin, was fired by Trump in a tweet. One week after the White House's email, a VA official in the secretary's office responded: "VA submits a 'No Comment' response."

The White House again asked for agencies' comment in July and September 2018, and each time, a VA official sent the same response.

The White House's Sept. 4, 2018, email stated that the newest draft included "exemptions for service-members." In an initial proposed version of the regulation released to the public later that month, DHS made clear that it decided on the exemption "following consultation with DOD."

The emails obtained by ProPublica do not include military officials' communications with the White House or DHS. A Pentagon spokeswoman, Jessica Maxwell, said, "DOD was consulted in these conversations," but she declined to provide further details.

But because the VA declined to provide such "consultation," an exception for veterans wasn't considered in the initial proposed regulation in 2018.

Only after members of the public raised the issue during the regulation's comment period did DHS consider, and ultimately refuse, a veterans' exemption in the final regulation, which was released last week.

In its justification for the new policy, DHS said veterans aren't afforded the same exemption as active-duty service members because they have access to special VA benefits, which the new policy doesn't count against them. Furthermore, the department said, while active-duty service members often need to use benefits to supplement low military salaries, veterans are free to take higher-paying jobs.

But not every veteran receives veterans' benefits, and the benefits — which include health care for conditions related to military service, education stipends and home-buying assistance — are not a substitute for benefits that make up the broader social safety net like food stamps, Medicaid and housing vouchers. Critics of DHS' decision say many veteran families occasionally need to use public benefits or fall into poverty.

A VA spokesman declined to say if the agency has any concerns about the new policy's impact on veterans.

The emails obtained by ProPublica also show that as the White House scrambled to finish the regulation and release it to the public last year, it discouraged federal agencies from arguing against the major thrust of the policy.

"Please do not worry about non-substantive line edits," a White House official, whose name is redacted, wrote in bolded type. "Please recognize, also, that the decision of whether to propose expanding the definition of public charge, broadly, has been made at a very high level and will not be changing."

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism throughout the movie.

When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division, board a C-130J Super Hercules, assigned to the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on January 5, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez)

The Defense Department has remained relatively tight-lipped regarding the brazen Jan. 5 raid on a military base at Manda Bay, Kenya, but a new report from the New York Times provides a riveting account filled with new details about how the hours-long gunfight played out.

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The Defense Department just took a major step towards making the dream of a flying drone carrier a reality.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's air-launched and recoverable X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle finally conducted a maiden flight in November 2019, Gremlin contractor Dynetics announced on Friday.

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