Some young immigrants protected by the Obama-era “Dreamer” program who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and enlisted in the military are worried they’ll be deported, after indications from the Trump administration that they could be left without legal protection to stay in the country they signed up to fight for.
With the Pentagon imposing more stringent background checks on immigrant recruits in a program that offers a fast track to citizenship — and considering canceling it altogether — hundreds of foreign-born enlistees are finding themselves in a legal limbo. The situation is especially dire for so-called Dreamers protected by President Barack Obama’s landmark Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which faces an uncertain future under the Trump administration. The program grants legal status to an estimated 750,000 young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
Harminder Saini, a 23-year-old DACA recipient who enlisted in the U.S. Army in February 2016, is among those who are encountering growing delays as they wait to be shipped to basic training. Instead, they worry they may be shipped out of the country.
“It’s really a bad situation right now…I’m nervous because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “It just feels like being chained because of DACA.”
Saini, who came to the U.S. from India when he was 6, is fluent in Punjabi. That allowed him to enlist through the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, known as MAVNI, which offers expedited citizenship for immigrants with sought-after language and medical skills. He had already had been granted legal status under DACA, so he was allowed to join the military, one of 359 Dreamers who enlisted in the Army in 2016 alone, according to a Fox News report.
“It’s my way of giving back to this country. They allowed me to stay here and gave me so much,” said Saini, who remembers being held in detention soon after arriving. “With DACA, they gave me an opportunity to work, and I could also help my parents.”
Saini was told he would begin basic training in November, so he dropped out of his junior year at Hunter College in New York City. Nervous about basic training, he went to the gym every morning to prepare. The former history major watched every documentary about the military he could find.
“I was ready to go wherever they wanted to send me,” he said. “If they said the Middle East, I was down with going to the Middle East.”
But November came and went, and he is still waiting. The Army has not given him much information beyond telling him he has yet to pass the new background checks.
“I wish the military would make a decision on this. I wish I could serve,” Saini said. “Living in the shadows all these years has been tough. This was a way to freedom.”
The MAVNI program, which has resulted in citizenship for 10,400 troops since 2009, was put on hold last September. It was opened to DACA recipients in 2014. About 1,000 foreign-born recruits without legal status could face deportation if the Pentagon cancels their contracts to serve, according to an internal Pentagon memo first reported by the Washington Post. The U.S. Army, the only branch that accepts DACA recipients, did not respond to repeated requests for the current number of DACA recruits.
The Pentagon says the increased screening of immigrant recruits is necessary after recent reviews of the program revealed security risks, with some enlistees having engaged in previous criminal activity or posing “a significant counterintelligence threat.” Obama officials started imposing stricter vetting last fall. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also expressed concerns about the process.
For DACA recruits, the frustration at not being able to begin their military service is worsened by the fear that they could be stripped of the legal status that protects them from deportation.
DACA recipients in the military say they are watching the news closely, waiting to see if Trump will speak out against the 10 states that have threatened to sue if the administration doesn’t phase out Obama’s program.
“People are freaking out,” said William Medeiros, 24, who runs a Facebook group for Dreamers in the military. “I’m worried, I don’t know if they will stop renewing our DACAs.”
Medeiros, who came to the U.S. from Brazil when he was 6, saw the Army as a “light at the end of the tunnel” after his hopes of joining his local police department were dashed.
“I was told that it was basically impossible to obtain a law enforcement career without being a U.S. citizen,” he said.
His Portuguese skills allowed him to enlist through MAVNI in Orlando, Fla., last summer. He is still waiting to be sent to basic training. Medeiros says he will be kicked out of the Army and have his contract cancelled if he is not allowed to ship out to basic training within two years of his enlistment date.
“It’s all I have,” Medeiros said. “I’ve been in the United States since I was 6… Having to go to my home country is going to be hitting rock bottom. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
While the future of the entire program is uncertain, DACA recruits who haven’t shipped to basic training — after which they could fast-track their naturalization – are in the most immediate danger, according to Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer and lawyer who founded the MAVNI program.
“The ones we’re concerned about are [recruits] who haven’t gotten their citizenship yet,” she said. “And those folks could have a big problem because they’re in this precarious situation where DHS won’t let them get their citizenship anymore and they’re not allowed to ship out until they complete these onerous background checks.”
The Trump administration has hinted that it won’t defend DACA against a looming lawsuit from Texas and other states looking to end the popular but controversial program. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told members of Congress last week that the fate of DACA will likely be determined by the courts, perhaps as soon as September, and that attorneys he’s consulted with do not think the program is legally sustainable.
In February, Trump promised to treat the Dreamers “with heart” and said it was a “very, very tough subject.” But last month, Republican state officials from 10 states called on him to stop the program. Kelly has said that while he personally would not rescind the DACA program, he doesn’t expect the administration to defend it in a court challenge.
“This is not a fight that Kelly or [Defense Secretary Jim] Mattis want to pick with the administration,” said Cesar Vargas, an attorney and DACA recipient who is co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, a national organization dedicated to educating people about the DREAM Act. While they see the value in the skilled and highly motivated pool of recruits, he says they are unlikely to stick out their necks for a few hundred DACA recruits, even though “it is breaking an oath” to grant them citizenship in exchange for military service.
Dreamers serving in the military, he said, are likely to be swept up in the bigger fights over immigration and security.
In the confusion over the stalled MAVNI program, many Dreamers have turned to Facebook groups. Many posts are a jumble of enlistment dates, delayed training and a tangle of legal categories, showing the complicated situation for many who see their time running out.
On Medeiros’s Facebook group for DACA recipients who have enlisted in the Army, the fate of the program has been a hot topic.
“What would happen to DACAs who are already enlisted and waiting to be shipped?” posted one concerned member of the group.
In another, a teacher posted a letter to Mattis, asking for clarity for DACA recruits including her 20-year old mentee from the Philippines.
“He had always wanted to serve in the military [and] was happy to wait nine months to go to basic training,” she wrote in the letter to the defense secretary. “That wait expanded to 16 months and now he has been waiting 22 months and the door for him is nearly closed.”