Here's why two Alaska soldiers are suing the government they serve
One thousand foreign-born military recruits face potential deportation because of a shift in policy on a program designed to attract non-citizens with language skills or health certifications into military service in exchange for a fast track to U.S. citizenship.
Many more who have participated in the Military Accessions in the Vital National Interests ("MAVNI") program -- and are naturalized U.S. citizens -- are also being denied promotions or pushed out of military service all together. At least two Alaska soldiers find themselves facing the latter scenario.
MAVNI was conceived by Pentagon officials during President George W. Bush's reign, in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The goal was to get non-citizens who already live legally in the United States into military service, in particular, those who speak key languages that few soldiers can, such as Mandarin, Pashto, or Russian, or those who are capable of filling medical jobs, like combat trauma surgeon, that are notoriously difficult to recruit.
While the program attracted 10,000 soldiers and basically accomplished its goal, President Barack Obama ordered onerous background checks of all participants due to security concerns and possible infiltration from foreign intelligence services. The additional screenings are so expensive and time consuming that military officials, now under President Donald Trump's direction, are considering scrapping the program completely.
The result has been enormous uncertainty for MAVNI recruits and current soldiers who entered the military through the program, as well as a flurry of lawsuits against the Department of Defense that allege a variety of discriminatory practices.
Two soldiers stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson are part of a legal challenge mounted on behalf of 18 service members by attorney Dean O'Donnell of the Anchorage firm Atkinson, Conway and Gagnon.
Army Specialist Seung Yoon Yang is a naturalized citizen who serves as a combat engineer in the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
Yang came to the U.S. from South Korea when he was a child: his father attended graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology beginning in 2002, and the son attended a boarding school in Rhode Island. Since then, Yang graduated from the University of Chicago with degrees in economics and statistics. In 2015, Yang enlisted for an 8-year stint with the Army.
"Yang was assured orally by his recruiter and in writing by the Army that MAVNI was simply an enlistment option and that once he joined the ranks and became a U.S. citizen he would be treated the same as all other soldiers," O'Donnell wrote in a court document attached to his class action suit, which deals exclusively with naturalized citizens who are already serving in the military.
Even though Yang was recently invited to attend a program where he would become an officer and study at either Columbia University or Georgetown University, in January, the Department of Defense issued a memorandum stating that MAVNI soldiers are no longer allowed to apply to officer-inducing programs.
O'Donnell says this has "severely limited Yang's ability to serve his country, denied (him) the opportunity to advance in his chosen career in the U.S. Army, and treated (him) as a second class citizen."
Then there is Xi "Tracy" Cui, a naturalized citizen who hails from China. After graduating with bachelor's degrees in economics and urban and regional management in her home country, she came to the U.S. on a student visa in 2008 to attend a master's degree program in urban and regional management at the University of Florida.
Not long after graduating, she headed to the Southeast Alaska community of Haines, where she was a planning and zoning technician for the borough, updating and maintaining their mapping systems, reviewing land development proposals, and issuing land use permits.
"Cui was selected as the only employee in the Haines Borough to receive a merit pay increase in fiscal year 2014," O'Donnell wrote.
Yang has since moved to Washington where she is an associate planner, but she has maintained a tie to Alaska: in 2015, she was recruited to the U.S. Army Reserves for her technical competencies and for her fluency in Mandarin, and she now holds the title of horizontal construction engineer in the 297th Engineer Company at JBER.
In order to land that job, like many other MAVNI soldiers, Cui went through a single-scope background investigation, which is used to obtain top secret security clearance and involves interviews with past employers, coworkers, and other individuals known to the applicant, as well as a 10-year look back at the individual's finances, educational and professional activities, relationships, and residences.
According to the lawsuit, Cui's chain of command encouraged her to apply for officer candidate school, and she started the process this January. About a month later, though, she was informed that she would not be able to obtain a security clearance in the future because of the shift in Pentagon policy.
Hundreds of similar stories are emerging in court documents around the country.
Another is that of Paul Chelimo, a Kenyan-born runner who won a silver medal in the 5,000 meter race for the United States in Rio de Janeiro last year.
Kirti Tiwari was selected as an Army nominee for NASA's astronaut program, only to find out he was put on hold because he could not get a security clearance during his first 8-year term of enlistment. The native of India has a master's degree in molecular biology.
These are the types of people at risk of losing out on promotions, getting kicked out of military service, or getting deported, said Margaret Stock, O'Donnell's wife, who is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and prominent immigration attorney who ran for U.S. Senate in 2016.
"When this program was created, there was a dire shortage of American citizens who had medical specialties who were volunteering for military service," Stock said. "We already had immigrants who were trauma surgeons in Ohio or reconstructive dental doctors in Boston, Massachusetts, and they were legally in the country. But because the legal U.S. immigration system was broken the and still is right now, it's difficult for people like that to get a green card. It takes years and years, and by the time they finally get a green card, they're too old for military service.
"This program has solved that problem."
Stock said that, while exhaustive background checks are a reasonable requirement for the program, "you don't want to do so many background checks that you throw the baby out with the bathwater."
While this court case plays out, the debate is also happening in Congress as the National Defense Authorization Act ("NDAA") is being considered.
The Hill newspaper reports that several Democratic amendments to the bill seek to stop the Pentagon from canceling enlistment contracts for the more than 1,000 recruits who are currently facing potential deportation. All of the recruits were in the U.S. legally, but the uncertainty has lasted long enough that their legal status expired as they were waiting to enter into military training programs.
Republican amendments to NDAA would specify that the secretary of defense could only authorize enlistment of someone who is not a citizen or legal permanent resident after determining that person "does not present a counterintelligence or security risk," wording that would potentially encode the Obama-era background check regime.
Rep. Don Young and Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan did not immediately respond to interview requests from KTUU Channel 2 News.