By Alex Horton | The Washington Post
U.S. Army recruiters have abruptly canceled enlistment contracts for hundreds of foreign-born military recruits since last week, upending their lives and potentially exposing many to deportation, according to several affected recruits and a former Army officer 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 to focus on individuals who can more quickly enlist and thus satisfy strict recruitment targets.
The Pentagon and Army Recruiting Command, which oversees policy and guidance at its recruitment centers across the country, did not answer repeated requests for comment.
Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer central to the creation of the immigration recruitment program, told The 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.”
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 the Army Reserve is struggling to meet its numbers before the fiscal year closes Sept. 30, and canceling on resource-intensive recruits is attractive to some recruiters.
Half a dozen recruits from across the country tell The Post their contracts have been or will be canceled. Some are now out of legal immigration status and fear deportation.
Lola Mamadzhanova, 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.
“The recruiters did some dirty trick just to get me out so I won’t be trouble anymore,” Mamadzhanova, 27, told The Post on Thursday. 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 the recruiters used a wrong number to text her.
The senior recruiter at the station contacted by The Post declined to comment and called Mamadzhanova seven minutes afterward to reverse previous guidance, saying her unlawful immigration status was the reason she was released.
Mamadzhanova was assured by other recruiters that her status would not be an issue and she would ship for training soon after her status slipped in December 2015, days after she enlisted, but that process had dragged out for nearly two years.
Mamadzhanova, who is fluent in Russian, said the shifting and unclear rules have blindsided her.
“Joining the Army was a dream of mine since America has treated me so well,” she said. She applied for asylum in April, joining other recruits who have either sought asylum or fled.
Experts say the relatively small number of recruits in the Military Accessions to Vital National Interest (MAVNI) program possess skills with outsize value, such as foreign languages highly sought by Special Operations Command. The program has rotated 10,400 troops into the military, mostly the Army, since its inception in 2009. But it was suspended last fall after the Obama administration imposed a host of new investigative regulations that slowed processing to a crawl.
Although the military says it benefits from these recruits, they can generate a disproportionate amount of work for recruiters who must navigate an enormous amount of regulations and shifting policies. The layered security checks can add months or years to the enlistment process, which frustrate recruiters who must meet strictly enforced goals by quickly processing recruits.
In a summer memo, the Pentagon lists 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.
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The document acknowledges 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 President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to intervene on behalf of those recruits.
During July 19 testimony in a lawsuit filed by recruits who said the federal government unlawfully delayed their naturalizations, Justice Department attorney Colin Kisor assured the district court in Washington that recruits would only see their contracts canceled if “derogatory” information was found in extensive background investigations.
Mamadzhanova and others said their screenings, which take months to complete, have begun recently and could not have returned results.
Meanwhile, confusion reigned for recruits in multiple states.
At one office in Illinois, a senior recruiter restored a contract less than two hours after The Post inquired about a case. In Texas, a recruiter did the same 12 minutes after a call seeking to confirm whether a recruit’s contract was canceled.
An immigrant recruit who came to the United States in 2006 and enlisted in Virginia said her contract was canceled Tuesday after waiting for two years, just as her legal immigration status expired. Recruiters had assured her, saying her contract was a shield from federal immigration authorities, she said. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
She now fears deportation to her native Indonesia, which strips native-born people of citizenship if they enlist in a foreign military or pledge loyalty to another country, as she has done.
“I feel devastated,” she said. “The Army was my only hope.”
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