President Donald Trump has a very loose relationship with the truth… or so the press tells us. They parse and dissect every tweet, statement, or utterance to find a way to paint the president as either a liar or a buffoon. But while it may be true that the president, like every New Yorker I’ve ever known, is prone to exaggeration and over-generalization, the media rarely looks at itself in the mirror.
There are oceans of difference between reporting of fact and analysis-and-opinion. The media are increasingly trying to obscure that line. The latest example of this behavior touches close to home.
Last year, I wrote about planned changes to the program known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI. The program is a way for the Department of Defense to recruit immigrants with hard-to-obtain talent like fluency in Pashto and Dari (the two languages spoken in Afghanistan), promising them an expedited path to citizenship in return for their service.
At the time, there was a story circulating about a draft memo aiming to end the MAVNI program due to security concerns. What was not made clear a the time was that the program was already over; while congress had authorized additional MAVNI recruits, the Obama Administration stopped accepting new applicants in 2016, partly due to backlash over opening the program to the so-called “Dreamers,” the children of illegal aliens brought to the U.S. as children. Before that, MAVNI had required some sort of valid visa. A person who had crossed the border illegally could not show up at a recruiting station and have their border-jumping forgiven by a desire to join the military.
Immigrant recruiting back in the spotlight
Last week, the Associated Press set off a firestorm of social media indignation when it published a story claiming that “immigration attorneys say they know of more than 40 [MAVNI recruits] who have been discharged or whose status has become questionable, jeopardizing their futures.” The implication is that the military is undertaking a wholesale purge of MAVNI recruits.
But please allow me to translate: of the 10,000 people recruited through MAVNI since 2008, the DOD has told between 41 and 49 of them that they are ineligible to serve. If the number were 40, the story would have said 40. If it were more than 50, the story would have said “more than 50.” So of the 10,000 people in the program, fewer than one half of one percent have been unable to clear the security hurdles.
That’s not even worthy of a footnote, let alone a headline. For comparison, consider the fact that for permanent residents and native-born citizens of recruiting age, 71 percent are ineligible for military service because of lack of a high school diploma, criminal behavior, habitual drug use, obesity, and physical or mental health issues. Think about that. If you went to your local mall and selected a random sample of 100 people between the ages of 17 and 24, 71 of them would have some issue that made them unsuitable for military service.
And yet we’re supposed to be alarmed that between 41 and 49 of the 10,000 people recruited through MAVNI have been found to be ineligible? It is an indisputable truth, as any security clearance holder will tell you, that having direct relatives living in foreign nations introduces an additional level of security risk. This is particularly true for recruits from countries like Afghanistan, Syria, or China with whom the U.S. has a, shall we say complicated, security situation.
Deception by personalizing the policy
On Saturday, the same reporter — who for the record is not one of the AP’s outstanding Pentagon correspondents — doubled-down on the deception, invoking an age-old public relations tactic. Soviet Union strongman Josef Stalin is purported to have said “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” In an effort to “humanize” this non-story, the AP gave us a profile of a Chinese-born immigrant with a PhD in geography from Texas A&M who wished to join the military, but who recently learned that he did not pass his security screening.
Stalin understood the power of an individual story versus a flood of tragic news. It is easy to look at one isolated case and feel sympathy. The hope is that you’ll convert your sympathy into opposition to the entire policy. But it’s not that simple.
Allow me to give you one example from my own experience. As an ROTC graduate from the University of Miami, I served alongside many immigrants and children of immigrants both before and after receiving my commission. One of my classmates in 1989 was selected to serve in military intelligence. But at his wedding a few days after graduation, he wore air defense artillery insignia on his uniform. When we asked why his branch had suddenly changed, he told us that because he had direct relatives still living in Nicaragua, which was then still under the control of the Sandinista regime and considered to be a Soviet satellite state, he was ineligible for a Top Secret clearance.
Like all of us, he had already qualified for a Secret clearance as a condition of commissioning; but despite the fact that he was a U.S. citizen, his foreign connections were enough to prevent him from obtaining the higher-level clearance required for his desired field. The point here is that while it it’s easy and convenient to point to Trump’s admittedly nativist sentiments in an effort to malign DOD’s decisions, those comparisons are unfair and inaccurate. Security risks are determined by the current geopolitical situation, not political whim.
I stand by my analysis from last year: those MAVNI recruits who are eligible to serve ought to be allowed to serve and earn their citizenship. But it is not a contradiction also to believe that those deemed be a security risk ought not be allowed to continue.
National security, naturally, is the primary concern when screening people for national security roles.