U.S. Army cutting contracts for immigrant recruits
Hundreds may be affected, with some now facing deportation
U.S. Army recruiters have abruptly canceled enlistment contracts for hundreds of foreignborn military recruits since last week, upending their lives and potentially exposing many to deportation, according to several affected recruits and former military officials familiar with their situation.
Many of these enlistees have waited years to join a troubled immigration recruitment program designed to attract highly skilled immigrants into the service in exchange for fast-track citizenship.
Now recruits and experts say that recruiters are shedding their contracts to free themselves from an onerous enlistment process, which includes extensive background investigations, to focus on individuals who can more quickly enlist and thus satisfy strict recruitment targets.
Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer central to the creation of the immigration recruitment program, told The Washington Post that she has received dozens of frantic messages from recruits this week, with many more reporting similar action in Facebook groups. She said hundreds could be affected.
“It’s a dumpster fire ruining people’s lives. The magnitude of incompetence is beyond belief,” she said. “We have a war going on. We need these people.”
The nationwide disruption comes at a time when President Trump navigates a political minefield, working with Democrats on the fate of “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children — while continuing to stoke his antiimmigrant base. It was not immediately clear whether Pentagon officials have taken hard-line immigration stances from the White House as a signal to ramp down support for its foreign-born recruitment program.
Stock said a recruiter told her there was pressure from the recruiting command to release foreign-born recruits, with one directive suggesting they had until Sept. 14 to cut them loose without counting against their recruiting targets, an accounting quirk known as “loss forgiveness.”
The recruiter told Stock that the Army Reserve is struggling to meet its numbers before the fiscal year closes Sept. 30 and that canceling on resource-intensive recruits is attractive to some recruiters, she said.
On Friday, the Pentagon denied ordering a mass cancellation of immigrant recruit contracts and said there were no incentives to do so. Officials said that recent directives to recruiters were meant to reiterate that immigrant recruits must be separated within two years of enlistment unless they “opt in” for an additional year.
But some recruits among half a dozen interviewed for this article said they were not approaching that two-year limit when their contracts were canceled, sowing confusion about the reason they were cut loose. The Pentagon declined to address whether messages to recruiters contained language that could have been misinterpreted.
Lola Mamadzhanova, 27, who immigrated to the United States from Kyrgyzstan in 2009, said she heard that Army recruiters in Evanston, Ill., texted immigrant recruits last week asking whether they still wanted to enlist, with an unusual condition: They had 10 minutes to respond. She never received the text message. Her active-duty contract was canceled Sept. 7, according to a separation document obtained by The Post that said she “declined to enlist.” She later learned that recruiters used a wrong number to text her.
Some anti-immigration sentiment has swirled in the Pentagon for years, former staffers have said, with personnel and security officials from the Obama administration larding the immigrant recruiting process with additional security checks for visa holders already vetted by the Departments of State and Homeland Security.
“Immigrant recruits are already screened far more than any other recruits we have,” Naomi Verdugo, a former senior recruiting official for the Army at the Pentagon, told The Post.
Verdugo, along with Stock, helped implement the program. One Indian immigrant, a Harvard graduate and early recruit who is now a Special Forces soldier, was called back to undertake the updated security checks, she said.
Internal Pentagon documents obtained by The Post have said the immigrant recruitment program, formally known as the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program, was suspended last fall after the clearance process was paralyzed and officials voiced concern over foreign infiltrators, though it remains unclear whether any threats have ever materialized.
Experts say the relatively small number of recruits in the MAVNI program possess skills with outsize value, such as foreign-language skills highly sought by Special Operations Command. The program has rotated 10,400 troops into the military, mostly the Army, since its inception in 2009.
In a summer memo, the Pentagon listed 2,400 foreign recruits with signed contracts who are drilling in reserve units but have not been naturalized and have not gone to basic training. About 1,800 others were waiting for their active-duty training to begin.
The document acknowledges that 1,000 of those troops waited so long that they are no longer in legal status and could be exposed to deportation. That number probably has climbed since the memo was drafted in May or June. Lawmakers have asked Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to intervene on behalf of those recruits.
Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) filed an amendment in the defense authorization bill Tuesday to retain MAVNI recruits until their lengthy background investigations are finished.