New Immigration Policy Leaves Service Members in Limbo

Intelligence

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“My recruiter lied to me.” It’s a phrase you often hear from disgruntled or just plain grumpy junior enlisted Soldiers. I’m sure there are isolated cases where that’s true. But what about when it looks like the entire Army leadership lied to you?

To 1,000 immigrants currently serving in the Army Reserve who enlisted in 2016 under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, that’s exactly what it looks like. The Pentagon recently decided that the program needs greater scrutiny, leaving these soldiers in legal limbo. Some of them face deportation due to the fact that since the Pentagon has delayed their naturalization, their visas have expired.

Some of these soldiers are suing the Department of Defense over the issue. Their next hearing is set for this coming Wednesday.

The MAVNI program is (or maybe soon, was) designed to encourage immigrants with certain skills, especially language skills, for which the Army has an urgent need, to enlist in return for an expedited path to citizenship.

According to a Pentagon fact sheet on the program, MAVNI was authorized to recruit up to 5,200 immigrants — who were not permanent residents and who had the requisite skills — in Fiscal Year 2016. In return, these people would become citizens upon completion of their training.  Since the program’s inception in 2009, the Pentagon has recruited more than 10,000 men and women into the armed forces, primarily the Army, through MAVNI.

But in May of this year, the DoD circulated a memo, later obtained by he Washington Post, which indicated the department was prepared to end the program abruptly, citing issues with security investigations of program participants.

anti-immigrant or legitimate concern?

It’s tempting to blame this turn of events on some sort of anti-immigrant, nativist impulse in Trump Administration. But it’s not nearly that simple.

Concerns over security issues emerged last fall before the election, and the official who the Post reports signed-off on the memo, Anthony M. Kurta, is not, or at least was not at the time, a Trump appointee. Kurta is a retired Navy Rear Admiral who transitioned into the Senior Executive Service after his 2013 retirement. He became deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy (a position that does not require any Senate confirmation) in 2014. As the senior career official in the Pentagon’s personnel office, he as been performing the duties of the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness since January.

On June 25, the president nominated Kurta to be the principal deputy under secretary in that office. Two days later, he appointed Robert Wilkie, who had been serving on the staff of North Carolina Republican Sen.Thom Tillis and previously served in the Pentagon during the Bush Administration, to the under secretary position. The Senate is likely to consider both men some time in September.

what’s likely to happen?

These types lawsuits have a fairly decent success record. In 2001, then-Maj. Martha McSally, senior female fighter pilot in the Air Force (who eventually retired as a colonel and now serves as a Republican Congresswoman from Arizona) sued the DoD over the policy that required military women stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear an abaya when leaving the confines of post. In response to the publicity brought by the suit, Congress prohibited the practice a year later. And in 2012, four women (one of whom, for the record, was under my command in the Army Reserve at the time) sued the DoD over the policy barring women from direct combat. The Obama Administration ended that policy before the case made it to trial.

So if history is any guide, the pressure of this legal challenge may convince the Pentagon to reverse course this time as well. Frankly, that would be the only just outcome. End the program if you must, but don’t penalize the men and women who signed on the dotted line and are fulfilling their obligations honorably. Anything less is a breach of trust from an organization that depends on mutual trust to fight and win the nation’s wars.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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