Pentagon Freezes Immigrant Recruitment Program
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The U.S. military has recruited thousands of immigrants from around the globe for their specialized medical or language skills. Now the Defense Department is considering pulling out of the deal it made with those recruits because of security concerns. And some of those immigrants who were promised a fast track to citizenship in exchange for their service could face deportation instead. Here's NPR's Richard Gonzales.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: As a young boy born with polio in India, Jeevan Pendli saw the movies made in Hollywood and dreamed of immigrating to the United States.
JEEVAN PENDLI: I watched "Star Wars" movies when I was a kid back in India. And, you know, this is the land of immigrants and also the land of opportunities, and that's why we came in.
GONZALES: Now 34 years old, Pendli has made a life in the U.S. He came on a student visa, earning an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University. He stayed on a visa for tech workers and co-founded a company that helps people with chronic illnesses manage their health.
Still, he wanted to join the U.S. Army. You see, he grew up weak, and his father didn't think he would amount to much physically. But he overcame polio and became a runner. At the Marine Corps Marathon a few years ago, he said he was inspired by soldiers in wheelchairs and on prosthetics. So last year, he volunteered.
PENDLI: Things seemed fine when we signed and did the oath in May, and it just fizzled out in a couple of weeks or months.
GONZALES: More than a year after pledging allegiance to the United States in May of 2016, Pendli is still waiting to be shipped off to basic training. Pendli and thousands of other recruits got caught up in a debate at the Pentagon over the program called Military Accessions to the Vital National Interest (ph). It was frozen last year amid concerns about inadequate vetting of the recruits. The program began in 2009 to address shortages in doctors and language experts. Pendli was a prime candidate because of his background in medical technology and his expertise in Hindi and Punjabi. Under the program, the Pentagon told recruits, serve eight years honorably, and you'll get citizenship. Ten thousand legal immigrants signed up. Here's the founder of the program, retired Lieutenant Colonel Margaret Stock.
MARGARET STOCK: We got a flood of highly qualified, highly educated legal immigrants who joined the military voluntarily in order to contribute their skills to America's national defense.
GONZALES: Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael declined to discuss individual cases. According to an internal memo obtained by NPR, the Pentagon is considering dismantling the program. In the memo, Pentagon officials cited the possibility that recruits could have connections to foreign intelligence services or become insider threats. Several Defense Department sources told NPR's Tom Bowman that the Pentagon is trying to balance national security concerns with the military's needs for specialized skills.
Under the proposal outlined in the memo, immigrants already serving in the military would be flagged for enhanced security screenings. Others, like Jeevan Pendli, who still haven't attended basic training would be separated from the military and their enlistment contracts canceled. About 1,000 of those immigrants would be at risk of deportation because their visas have expired. Sagar Dubey runs a Facebook page for recruits like himself who he says are now caught in limbo, waiting for background checks in order to go to basic training. He's a computer engineer from India.
SAGAR DUBEY: If you don't have your investigations completed, you won't ship to training. But you won't ship to training because your investigations are not completed.
GONZALES: Recruits have filed two lawsuits. One argues that the government reneged on its deal to offer them citizenship. Another contends the Pentagon discriminated against citizens naturalized through the program by denying them security clearances and stalling their military careers. The founder of the program, the retired lieutenant colonel Stock, says the proposal to dismantle it could be a violation of the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.
STOCK: They're subjecting this whole entire group of people to this extreme vetting, and it's not based on any individualized suspicion of any of these people. In fact, it's clear that a lot of the people are above reproach, you know. They've passed all kinds of security checks already. And that in itself is unconstitutional.
GONZALES: In the memo, Pentagon officials acknowledge potential legal problems. The officials also say the Defense Department may need to develop a public affairs strategy before canceling enlistment contracts. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
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