LEHI — In 2016, Yongde Chen, 36, joined the U.S. military on a journey that he hoped would lead him to become a naturalized American citizen. But recent developments have stalled that journey and put his dream in peril, as well as risked his family's ability to remain in the United States.
The U.S. armed forces created an avenue to citizenship for scores of immigrants over the years, allowing the military to bolster voluntary participation and strengthen its warfighting capabilities. Recently, however, some foreign-born U.S. Army reservists and recruits who enlisted with a promised path to citizenship are being abruptly discharged, according to the Associated Press.
While the AP was unable to quantify the exact number of men and women who enlisted through the special recruitment program that has been booted from the Army, immigration attorneys claim more than 40 individuals have been discharged or their status has become questionable, thereby jeopardizing their futures and established lives in America.
"Right now, I'm just kind of waiting," Chen said.
Born in China, Chen obtained a work visa and traveled to the U.S. in 2010. Currently living in Lehi with his wife, he is currently employed as a software developer in Utah's burgeoning technology industry. He joined the U.S. Army Reserve two years ago as a way to serve the country and eventually become an American citizen. His military contract is for a six-year term.
But in a recent update, he said a recruiter informed him that his latest background investigation received an "unfavorable" designation.
"That means that possibly I will get discharged from the Army Reserve," Chen said.
In the two years with the reserve unit, Chen said he hasn't received any disciplinary notifications and no one in unit leadership could explain why he received the "unfavorable" rating.
"Even when I check with my squad leader or platoon sergeant, they don't give (any reason) yet," he explained. And to date, he has received no formal notice of discharge, leaving him unsure of his eventual fate.
"He didn't provide me with any more details for now," he added.
Some of the service members say they were not told why they were being discharged, according to the AP. Others who pressed for answers said the Army informed them they'd been labeled as security risks because they have relatives abroad or because the Defense Department had not completed background checks on them.
Spokespeople for the Pentagon and the Army told the AP that, due to the pending litigation, they were unable to explain the discharges or respond to questions about whether there have been policy changes in any of the military branches.
Eligible recruits are required to have legal status in the U.S., such as a student visa, before enlisting. More than 5,000 immigrants were recruited into the program in 2016, and an estimated 10,000 are currently serving. Most go into the Army, but some also go to the other military branches.
To become citizens, the service members need an honorable service designation, which can come after even just a few days at boot camp. But the recently discharged service members have had their basic training delayed, so they can't be naturalized.
Alaska-based immigration attorney Margaret Stock, a retired Army Reserve officer, helped develop the immigrant recruitment program. When the forced separations began, she was inundated by recruits who were abruptly discharged. Each had signed enlistment contracts and taken an Army oath and many were reservists like Chen who had been attending unit drills, receiving pay and undergoing training, while others had been in a "delayed entry" program, she explained
She told the AP the service members she's heard from had been told the Defense Department had not managed to put them through extensive background checks, which include CIA, FBI and National Intelligence Agency screenings and counterintelligence interviews. Therefore, by default, they do not meet the background check requirement.
"It's a vicious cycle," she said. It's unclear how the service members' discharges could affect their status as legal immigrants.
In a statement, the Defense Department said: "All service members (i.e. contracted recruits, active duty, Guard and Reserve) and those with an honorable discharge are protected from deportation." However, immigration attorneys told the AP that many immigrants let go in recent weeks were an "uncharacterized discharge," neither dishonorable nor honorable.
In 2002, then-President George W. Bush ordered "expedited naturalization" for immigrant soldiers in an effort to increase military participation in the time after 9/11, Stock explained. Seven years later, the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program — known as MAVNI — became an official recruiting program, she said.
Conservatives criticized the program when President Barack Obama added Deferred Action Childhood Arrival recipients — young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally — to the list of eligible enlistees, the AP noted. In response, the military layered on additional security clearances for recruits to pass before heading to boot camp.
The AP reported Trump Administration added even more hurdles, creating a backlog within the Defense Department. Last fall, hundreds of recruits still in the enlistment process had their contracts canceled. A few months later, the military suspended MAVNI.
Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland, who has supported legislation to limit the program, told the AP that MAVNI was established by executive order and never properly authorized by Congress.
"Our military must prioritize enlisting American citizens, and restore the MAVNI program to its specialized, limited scope," he said.
Stock noted that non-U.S. citizens have served in the military since the Revolutionary War when Continental soldiers included Irish, French and Germans. The U.S. recruited Filipino nationals to serve in the Navy in the 1940s and worked to enlist Eastern Europeans in the military over the next decade, according to the Defense Department.
"Immigrants have been serving in the Army since 1775," Stock said. "We wouldn't have won the revolution without immigrants. And we're not going to win the global war on terrorism today without immigrants."
Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 110,000 members of the Armed Forces have gained citizenship by serving in the U.S. military, according to the Defense Department. The AP reported many service members recruited through the program have proven to be exemplary. In 2012, then-Sgt. Saral K. Shrestha, originally from Nepal, was named U.S. Army Soldier of the Year.
Stock noted that the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research institution, reported that in general, the immigrant recruits have been more cost-effective, outperforming their fellow soldiers in the areas of attrition, performance, education and promotions.
"This program had been operating quite well for years," Stock said. "It was highly successful."
Despite that success, the program's suspension has put the future of immigrant military members in doubt. For now, Chen said he's in a state of "limbo" regarding his discharge status, as well as the potential for citizenship.
"We don't know yet what they are going to do with my naturalization (application) right now," he said.
The Army suspension of the program while lawsuits make their way through courts leaves individuals like Chen waiting anxiously. In a worst-case scenario, he would have to return to China where his U.S. military service could get him prosecuted in his native country. In his current situation, he said it feels like he is "being treated like a criminal."
"(My intention) was supposed to be for honorable service and (obtaining citizenship) in the 'right way,'" Chen said. "I've already served two years in my reserve unit … and suddenly you may be told to leave this country like a criminal. That's horrible."