The Department of Defense is strongly disputing a recent article by the Associated Press that suggests the United States Army has begun purging its ranks of non-U.S. citizens as the Trump administration ramps up efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
The July 5 article centers on the plight of immigrant recruits attempting to enter the military through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which was launched in 2008 to attract more recruits with critical skills such as doctors, nurses, and those who speak strategically valuable languages like Chinese, Dari, Farsi, and Russian by offering them an expedited path to citizenship. Service members who’ve enlisted through the MAVNI program represent only a small percentage of immigrants in the military, the vast majority of whom joined through the same channels as their U.S.-born counterparts.
Titled “US Army quietly discharging immigrant recruits,” the AP story reports that “some immigrant U.S. Army reservists and recruits who enlisted in the military with a promised path to citizenship are being abruptly discharged.” The story implies that institutionalized xenophobia might be behind the a recent spike in the number of MAVNI recruits being “booted” from the program.
But while the AP did report accurately that many recruits have been cut from the program in recent months, the Pentagon insists that the numbers reflect nothing unusual. Indeed, two Army recruiters who spoke to Task & Purpose on the condition of anonymity rejected the notion that the military was deliberately and purposefully ridding itself of non-U.S. citizens —as did a Nigerian immigrant who has been enrolled the MAVNI program for more than two years. “I think the journalist just didn’t understand how MAVNI works,” she opined.
One of the recruiters put it more bluntly. “The MAVNI situation is f*cked up and screwing these kids over,” he said. “But that article is bullsh*t.”
More than 10,000 non-U.S. citizens were accepted into the MAVNI program before it was halted in September 2017, but the Pentagon could not say when reached by Task & Purpose on Friday how many of those recruits actually entered the military. Recruits can be dropped from the program for myriad reasons, such as poor physical health or a failure to clear mandatory background checks.
All military applicants must undergo background checks. According to Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman, roughly 1,100 are still waiting to begin basic training pending the completion of background investigations, including one conducted by the National Background Investigations Bureau.
But these background checks are not uniform processes. For an 18-year-old enlisting straight out of high school in, say, Kentucky, the process can be fairly quick for logistical reasons, like the ease of contacting a recruit’s family, readily accessible information about past residences, relationships with dubious figures, and so on.
By contrast, the typical MAVNI recruit has a much more complex life story. Many hail from countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, where terror groups are highly active and poor government record-keeping can make it exceedingly difficult for investigators to determine whether the recruit poses a security threat.
“Because MAVNI recruits are foreign nationals who are not permanent residents of the United States, the security screening required for these individuals can be difficult and time consuming due to limitations in the Department’s ability to verify information in the individual’s home country,” Gleason said.
While the AP stated in its July 5 article that some immigrant Army were “abruptly discharged,” Gleason was adamant that the protocols for vetting foreign-born military applicants have remained unchanged since MAVNI ended last year. Indeed, one Pentagon source told Task & Purpose that those recruits who were recently discharged were either among the last to join MAVNI or required the most extensive background checks. Another souce said the military is taking extra precautions after a handful of MAVNI recruits had been let into the ranks only to be discharged later when investigators discovered red flags.
One of the recruiters echoed that sentiment. “The Army has been playing fast and loose with MAVNI for a decade, and would ship people to basic training who didn’t have completed background checks, and all sorts of other stuff,” he said. “Then people started to see the writing on the wall and they did their due diligence to correct the issue.”
And while the AP story also claimed that some of the recruits were blindsided by news they were being separated and the military didn’t explain to them why, another recruiter told Task & Purpose on Friday that such cases are rare.
“I don’t doubt that there were some piece of s**t recruiters that s**t-canned these kids for the sake of it,” the second recruiter said. “But in my office, we sat down individually with every one of them and laid it all out – what it meant – and asked them if they wanted to continue.”
As the AP article ignited an avalanche of media outrage on cable news and social media, the Army and Pentagon went into full damage-control mode, explaining to reporters that the military is required to conduct a security of screening of all recruits as part of the accessions process.
“Any recruit, to include those recruited through the MAVNI program, who receives an unfavorable security screening is deemed unsuitable for military service and is administratively discharged,” said Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Nina Hill. “Each recruit undergoes an individualized suitability review and the length of time for the review is dependent upon each individual’s unique background.”
Army officials declined to answer further questions about the recruits discharged and the security screening process.
Indeed, the confusion over the AP story points to another fundamental problem in the complexity and lack of understanding surrounding MAVNI. While great in theory, the MAVNI program very quickly became a bureaucratic nightmare. The issue seems to be scalability: In 2008, the year MAVNI was launched, a maximum of 1,000 recruits were permitted to enter the Army. Over the next several years the cap increased to 5,000. Both recruiters expressed sympathy for the MAVNI applicants. Some have been stuck in limbo for years.
Abiodun Awonusi is one such applicant. She joined the MAVNI in March 2016 and was supposed to begin basic training that September, but her start date has been delayed twice. Now she has no idea if she will ever become a soldier.
Awonusi, who now lives in New Jersey, came to the United States in 2013 on a student visa to pursue a master’s degree in healthcare administration. She qualified for the MAVNI program because she speaks Yoruba, but that has actually complicated her immigration status.
“When you join the MAVNI program it kind of leaves you in a messed up situation, because once you do that with immigration they say you have shown intent to stay,” she told Task & Purpose. “ So you technically cannot apply for any other immigration categories that don’t show intent to stay.”
That means she is ineligible for temporary visas, she said. Her original student visa had expired while she has been waiting to join the Army.
“So it leaves you in a little rut where there’s not a lot to do and you just have to wait it out and see what happens,” she said. “I am not legally allowed to work.”
Correction: A previous version of this analysis incorrectly stated that background investigations of military applicants are conducted by the Defense Security Service. The investigations are currently conducted by the National Background Investigations Bureau. (Updated 7/6/2018; 11:17 pm EST)