Several hundred dreamers who enlisted in the through a special program are worried that they will be deported before they get to serve.
For most participants in the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, a countdown to an uncertain future began last week when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the program would be phased out beginning in March.
For DACA recipients in the , that countdown began long ago, as they watched bureaucratic delays run down the clock on the number of days they’re allowed to wait between signing their contracts and shipping to basic training. Many are stuck in a limbo that means if their DACA permits expire before they ship, they will no longer be able to serve, forfeiting a chance at U.S. citizenship.
“It’s kind of messing up our lives,” said John Anthony Sena, 20, a Filipino DACA recipient who signed his contract with the about a year and a half ago. “If I don’t ship out, it’s basically game over.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post has reported that U.S. recruiters have begun canceling enlistment contracts for foreign-born recruits. That would change their immigration status and make them subject to deportation.
Most of the U.S. requires enlistees to have at least a green card, if not U.S. citizenship. Before the Obama administration halted the program in 2016, the Accessions Vital to National Interest program, or MAVNI, allowed non-citizens who didn’t have green cards to join the if they had needed medical credentials or fluency in a language needed by the . Dreamers were protected from deportation under DACA.
Created in 2009, the program required participants to have some kind of temporary visa, like a student visa, that allowed them to be in the U.S. legally. In 2014, the program began accepting people from the DACA program, and in the process, MAVNI increased security checks, causing years-long delays. Many DACA recipients who signed contracts with the are still waiting to finish their security interviews and go on to basic training, which is when they would become eligible to naturalize as U.S. citizens.
Sena, who lives in Covina, came to the U.S. when he was about 10. He has wanted to join the since he was a child. His mother worked at a restaurant next to a recruitment for the , and he grew up admiring them.
He found out that he didn’t have legal status in the U.S. in high school when he tried to join the . His parents hadn’t told him, even when they signed him up for DACA for the first time when it came out in 2012, he said.
“When I knew that, I was distraught for weeks,” Sena said. “‘What am I going to do after high school?’ I was totally out of options.”
He’s been worried about whether he would actually be allowed to serve since his original basic training date was delayed in 2016. Finding out that DACA was going away amplified his worry, he said.
Sena still shows up for training every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 a.m. while he waits. In the meantime, he’s studying nursing at a community college.
He and his twin, who is also a DACA recipient enlisted with MAVNI, joke about their situation to keep their spirits up.
“We are the most vetted undocumented people in the country,” Sena said, referring to the repeated background checks for DACA and the security clearances required for MAVNI.
Many anticipate that the MAVNI program will not be reopened for applications. Those who have already applied but haven’t shipped out have 730 days from when they sign their contracts before their contracts expire. recruiters were recently given the option to extend those wait times one more year for those who opt to stay in the program, according to several MAVNI recruits.
Several lawsuits have come out of the delays as some MAVNI recruits haven’t been able to extend their visas while they wait.
The Washington Post obtained a memo drafted this summer that listed 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.
The document acknowledges 1,000 of those 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 Jim Mattis to intervene on behalf of those recruits.
Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, recently sponsored an amendment that would protect MAVNI recruits while they wait for security clearance.
Margaret Stock, an attorney in Alaska and retired who launched the MAVNI program, estimated that out of about 900 DACA recipients who joined, about 350 are still waiting.
She blames the current state of the MAVNI program on xenophobia.
“It’s very harmful for national security to have such an anti-immigrant attitude at the ,” Stock said. “You need to get qualified people for the U.S. . That’s how we’ve won our wars. If you’re going to turn your backs on the immigrants, you might as well give up.”
She wishes that DACA recipients had been allowed to enlist in other parts of the since many don’t qualify for the MAVNI program.
“These folks are an asset to the U.S., not a liability,” Stock said. “If we deport them, we’re essentially providing U.S. educated people to foreign countries. It doesn’t make sense for national security.”
President Trump has indicated that he sympathizes with DACA recipients in the .
Reports that Trump had negotiated a deal with Democrats to pass some kind of protection for dreamers surfaced this week. But there was continued confusion about the details and whether a deal had actually been reached.
Trump tweeted, “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the ? Really!…..”
Sena’s DACA permit expires in October next year. If he is still in limbo when that happens, it will be too late.
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