The Slatest

The Pentagon Says It’s Not Purging Immigrant Recruits, but Some Evidence Indicates Otherwise

Mattis, wearing a suit and backdropped by several in-uniform service members, looks to his left.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon on June 20. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, the AP released an explosive report about immigrants who’d signed up to serve in the U.S. armed forces in exchange for future citizenship only to have their “enlistment contracts” suddenly canceled before they’d been able to start basic training. The individuals affected were involved in the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, through which immigrants with in-demand medical and language skills enlist in exchange for expedited naturalization. On Friday, though, the Department of Defense said that there have been no changes to the program since Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis took over in 2017:

It’s possible that the AP’s report is accurate and the DOD is technically telling the truth. Here’s a timeline:

• The MAVNI program was created in 2009, formalizing skills-for-citizenship recruiting practices put into place under George W. Bush. Late in the Obama administration—the AP says it happened after DACA recipients became eligible, which was in 2014—new layers of background checks were added to the program, slowing the process by which those who’d signed up for it were actually allowed to begin basic training. In September 2016, during the tenure of Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the program stopped taking new applicants.

• In June 2017, the Washington Post reported on the existence of an internal memo that suggested canceling the enlistment contracts of 1,800 MAVNI participants who’d signed up before the program was suspended but had yet to begin basic training.

• While that full-scale cancellation has never been formally carried out, the Post also reported in September 2017 that “hundreds” of such contracts had been canceled individually under sometimes-suspect circumstances. A retired Army officer who’d helped create MAVNI, Margaret Stock, told the paper that “a recruiter told her there was pressure from the recruiting command to release foreign-born recruits.” The Post reported that some enlistees’ canceled contracts were suddenly reinstated after a reporter called recruiters to ask about them.

• In October 2017 Mattis announced that service members who were candidates for citizenship would face even more security reviews and have to wait longer after beginning service to have their applications processed. The Military Times reported in May 2018 that military naturalization applications dropped 65 percent in the quarter after the announcement.

• In January 2018, BuzzFeed reported that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency had “shuttered all of its offices at US Army basic training locations,” which as you might imagine makes it more difficult for service members who are in basic training to advance their citizenship applications.

And that brings us to the AP’s report, which paraphrases MAVNI creator Margaret Stock—who’s now an immigration attorney—as saying that she’s been “inundated over the past several days by recruits who have been abruptly discharged.” (A canceled enlistment counts as a discharge even if it happens before basic training.)

So: Officially, MAVNI hasn’t been canceled. But it’s not taking new applicants, enlistees who haven’t started basic training have been getting their contracts abruptly canceled, and the naturalization process has become harder for those who have started their service.