Broken Promises Leave Immigrant Army Reservists in Limbo

(Not published)

Private Sehoon Kim came to the U.S. on student visa from South Korea almost 16 years ago. With hope to become a citizen, he enlisted in Army Reserve in March, 2016 through the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, also known as MAVNI, and has been serving ever since. “To be honest, Army has been amazing, a lot of them have become my mentors,” says Kim.

In February this year, Kim had his N-426 form signed by his supervisor— a step in the naturalization process to request that the Department of Defense (DoD) verify the applicant’s military service, and submitted it to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). He had been promised naturalization when he joined the military, but he learned in May that his application, along with others, have been put on hold, a result of Trump administration.

With the promise of expedited citizenship, more than 10,400 immigrants are enlisted through the MAVNI program since its launch in 2009, most of whom serve in the Army, first reported by the Washington Post. The program was allowed to accept up to 5,200 recruits in 2016. However, since the program was suspended last Fall due to security concerns, and the naturalization process now put on hold, many MAVNI members have been living in limbo.

Reservists were told that Top Secret clearance was added to the requirement, which is not required for citizen recruits. There’s also no definite answer to when they will be completed.

Kim says the new requirements make it seem like his loyalty is being questioned. “When we signed that contract, we understood that everyone’s life in this country worth more than ours,” says Kim. “We really just want to be a part of this country, and build a life here. If we have to sacrifice our lives to protect this place, we will do that.”

Army Reservists who come from hostile countries and have already started serving may find themselves in an even more desperate state. For example, Indonesian citizens who join a foreign military without the President’s permission lose their citizenship.

One Chinese Indonesian reservist, who wishes to remain unnamed for safety reasons, recalls that he cried when he realized that he might end up stateless. “If [the Indonesian Government] finds out that I’ve joined the U.S. military, things will go really bad,” he says.

Concerned about the radical Islamists in Indonesia and their anti-Chinese sentiment, he had high hopes to be naturalized, support his family, and eventually bring them to the U.S. Now he can only take his chances on applying for asylum, because he is financially unable to maintain his student status as the out-of-state tuition is too expensive. “If the MAVNI program opens [in the future], I hope people don’t have to go through something like this again,” he says. “It really destroys people’s minds.”

Since the naturalization process was put on hold in March this year, at least two lawsuits have been filed by Army Reservists. The Kusuma Nio, et al. v. United States Department of Homeland Security, et al. case was filed in May, and Mahlon Kirwa, et al. v. United States Department of Defense, et al. was filed on September 1, both represented by lawyers from Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP, and assigned to Judge Ellen S. Huvelle in Washington D.C.

In the Nio case, which represents ten plaintiffs, argues that the government agencies, Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and USCIS impeded and delayed their naturalization process without any lawful basis.

Four months later, not only the expedition in the process of naturalization is paused, many MAVNI reservists cannot get their N-426 forms signed— a crucial step in naturalization recognizing their military service— even if they’ve served honorably for the amount of time required.

In the Kirwa case, the Complaint alleged that DoD has blocked reservists’ naturalization by having “implemented a new policy by which they are refusing to issue Form-426s to Plaintiffs and other similarly-situated eligible soldiers on the grounds that the soldiers have not yet served in an active-duty status,” which was not required when the reservists first signed their contracts.

Both have filed motion for Class Certification and Appointment of Class Counsel, which means if it is approved by the court, the outcomes of the two lawsuits will apply to anyone who has met the enlistment and bureaucratic requirements. The court has not yet decided on this matter.

The Army Public Affairs Office did not respond to comment.

Margaret Stock is a retired Army officer and MacArthur fellow, who led the creation of MAVNI. She declined to give a separate comment, but in her statement to the Washington Post, she expressed that “it’s a dumpster fire ruining people’s lives. The magnitude of incompetence is beyond belief. We have a war going on. We need these people.”

Despite the ongoing issues involving the MAVNI community, whether they are on active duty or in reserve, some still feel optimistic.

“I believe President Trump will help with the army situation more, because he [said so] during his 2016 election,” says Puneeth Harsha Iyengar, a specialist in Mechanical Engineering serving in the Army Reserve, who was also naturalized through the MAVNI program last August. “[With] the situation with North Korea and in Middle East, you need more people who understand the country and the language. Additional troops will be needed.”

Haoming Zhang is also hopeful that the MAVNI program will reopen again. He has been waiting to ship out on active duty since February, 2016. In the meantime, he is remaining in the U.S. on a student visa.

Zhang is a co-founder and regulator of Asian American Soldiers for America (AASA), according to their Facebook group is a volunteer activist group for MAVNI comprised of approximately 278 members. The group’s description declared that they “support the President and the Republican ideals.”

When asked to explain his supports the Republican Party given their anti-immigration stance, he replied that he blamed the Obama administration for allowing DACA recipients into the program, which led to its demise. “This program was designed for people with legal status,” he said. “It gives those who are in power a legitimate reason to kill this program. Plus, the Republican candidate won the election.”