Sol­diers sue U.S. over prom­ise of cit­i­zen­ship

Frozen sta­tus puts re­servists in dan­ger of be­ing de­ported.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By Vera Ber­gen­gruen Tri­bune News Ser­vice

Sol­diers in the U.S. Army Re­serve are su­ing the Pen­tagon and the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity for stalling their cit­i­zen­ship ap­pli­ca­tions af­ter they joined the mil­i­tary through a pro­gram that promised them fast-track nat­u­ral­iza­tion for their ser­vice.

“Each plain­tiff-sol­dier has kept his/her end of the bar­gain,” their law­suit states. The im­mi­grant re­cruits did their part by en­list­ing, train­ing in drills with their unit and sub­ject­ing them­selves to de­ploy­ment. The U.S. Army cer­ti­fied their ser­vice, and the mil­i­tary is sup­posed to pro­vide cit­i­zen­ship as soon as they com­plete ba­sic train­ing or at­tend drills.

But at the Pen­tagon’s re­quest, the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment is not pro­cess­ing their ap­pli­ca­tions, as re­quired, while the U.S. gov­ern­ment sub­jects the re­cruits to a more rig­or­ous back­ground check than those typ­i­cally needed to nat­u­ral­ize.

What’s more, Pen­tagon and Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials now say they are con­sid­er­ing go­ing back and chang­ing who is el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of mil­i­tary ser­vice — re­quired for nat­u­ral­iza­tion un­der this mil­i­tary re­cruit­ing pro­gram — and pos­si­bly even re­vok­ing the cer­ti­fi­ca­tions for those sol­diers not in ac­tive-duty ser­vice.

The de­lay has put some sol­diers at risk of de­por­ta­tion, the law­suit states. These sol­diers are “suf­fer­ing ir­repara­ble harm” and fi­nan­cial strain as they face un­cer­tainty about their sta­tus, un­able to get a job, a driver’s li­cense or a pass­port to visit sick fam­ily mem­bers, their at­tor­neys say.

It has also baf­fled the mil­i­tary lawyer who wrote the pol­icy.

“Are they mak­ing up new rules there at DoD? I’ve never heard of de­cer­ti­fy­ing some­one who is el­i­gi­ble through the Re­serves, it is out­ra­geous,” said Mar­garet Stock, a re­tired Army of­fi­cer and lawyer. “They’ve nat­u­ral­ized thousands of re­servists and all of a sud­den DoD no­ticed it and they’re go­ing to re­voke some of them?”

The 10 re­servists who brought the suit were re­cruited through the Pen­tagon’s Mil­i­tary Ac­ces­sions Vi­tal to the Na­tional In­ter­est pro­gram, known as MAVNI, which gives ex­pe­dited cit­i­zen­ship to le­gal im­mi­grants who en­list with crit­i­cal lan­guage skills or med­i­cal train­ing.

Nearly 10,000 im­mi­grants are in the MAVNI pro­gram, most of them serv­ing in the Army. The pop­u­lar pro­gram was al­lowed to ac­cept 5,000 re­cruits in 2016, but was frozen last fall af­ter se­cu­rity con­cerns about the vet­ting of re­cruits. Now the Pen­tagon is con­sid­er­ing scrap­ping it al­to­gether, ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­nal memo in­cluded in the suit. This would leave roughly 1,000 nonci­t­i­zen re­cruits at risk of de­por­ta­tion de­spite be­ing en­listed in the U.S. mil­i­tary.

Fac­ing long de­lays and of­ten con­tra­dic­tory an­swers from the mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment im­mi­gra­tion agen­cies, some re­cruits said they were afraid talk­ing to the press would hurt them if they have to take their cases to court. Oth­ers said they are wary that even speaking to im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­neys about pos­si­ble lit­i­ga­tion will get back to their re­cruiters and be a black mark on their record.

The Pen­tagon, in its court fil­ing in the case, is clear about the im­pli­ca­tions. Al­though the sol­diers named in this suit re­ceived their cer­ti­fi­ca­tions, they “could be con­sid­ered signed in er­ror and may be de­cer­ti­fied,” Stephanie Miller, Di­rec­tor of Mil­i­tary Ac­ces­sion Pol­icy at the Pen­tagon, said in a July 28 fil­ing, cit­ing the pro­gram’s guid­ance.

Two clas­si­fied re­ports con­cluded that MAVNI re­cruits “present an in­creased risk or threat to in­tel­li­gence ac­tiv­i­ties against the U.S. by for­eign in­tel­li­gence ser­vices,” Miller said in last week’s fil­ing.

She also in­di­cated the mil­i­tary wouldn’t pro­tect re­cruits whose le­gal sta­tus is run­ning out be­cause their ap­pli­ca­tions have come to a stand­still.

“For the MAVNIs who are no longer in a valid im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus, and whether they will be sub­ject to de­por­ta­tion DoD, de­fers to the au­thor­ity of the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity and U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices,” she said.

The law­suit was orig­i­nally filed in late May, but last month a D.C. fed­eral judge or­dered that it be re­filed to in­clude ex­tra le­gal claims. De­spite that set­back, U.S. District Judge Ellen Hu­velle scolded the Pen­tagon in a three-hour hear­ing on July 19 for cre­at­ing so much un­cer­tainty through “baf­fling” pol­icy changes.

“How is that le­gal?” Hu­velle asked. “How can that not be con­trary to the statute?”

Some re­servists had al­ready cleared all the hur­dles. Nio Kusama, a sur­geon serv­ing in Fort Hamil­ton, N.Y., was sched­uled for a cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­mony oath in May. Three weeks be­fore his nat­u­ral­iza­tion, he was in­formed that it had been abruptly can­celed. An­other plain­tiff, Jae Seong Park, com­pleted ba­sic train­ing and served ac­tive duty for more than a year at Fort Jack­son, S.C., be­fore his ap­pli­ca­tion was placed on hold.

The next hear­ing in the re­servists’ case is Aug. 23.

This is one of sev­eral law­suits filed by MAVNI re­cruits in re­cent months af­ter in­creas­ingly strin­gent se­cu­rity checks left thousands who had al­ready en­listed in limbo.

In re­sponse to a dif­fer­ent law­suit, De­fense Depart­ment of­fi­cials cited en­lis­tees us­ing fraud­u­lent stu­dent visas and fal­si­fied tran­scripts from uni­ver­si­ties owned by for­eign na­tional se­cu­rity agen­cies. Ad­di­tion­ally, some failed to list for­eign con­tacts. One re­cruit did not men­tion all of his con­nec­tions “de­spite the fact that his father man­ages the mil­i­tary depart­ment of a for­eign fac­tory,” they said.

Ad­vo­cates of the pro­gram ar­gue that while none of these highly vet­ted im­mi­grant re­cruits has ever been im­pli­cated in a se­ri­ous se­cu­rity breach — which would re­sult in re­vok­ing their cit­i­zen­ship, and would be pub­lic record — the same can’t be said of U.S.-born sol­diers who go through far fewer checks. Last month, a U.S. sol­dier in Hawaii was ar­rested for at­tempt­ing to pro­vide mil­i­tary doc­u­ments and a drone to the Is­lamic State. In May, an­other U.S. sol­dier was dis­charged af­ter he fought with Rus­sian-backed mil­i­tants in Ukraine.

Sev­eral en­lis­tees have said their re­cruiters have been silent and un­able to give an­swers since the lit­i­ga­tion started. Re­cruiters in the group ad­mit they are con­cerned about post­ing “in fear of what we say will be taken out of con­text, and we end up as part of the law­suit.”

The Pen­tagon de­clined to com­ment due to the pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

JUSTIN SUL­LI­VAN / GETTY IMAGES

De­ported U.S. Army vet­eran Hec­tor Bara­jas (fore­ground) founded the De­ported Veter­ans Sup­port House, also known as “The Bunker,” to sup­port de­ported veter­ans by of­fer­ing food, shel­ter, cloth­ing as well as ad­vo­cat­ing for po­lit­i­cal leg­is­la­tion that would pro­hibit fu­ture de­por­ta­tions of veter­ans.

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