While on the 2016 campaign trail then-candidate Donald Trump often read the lyrics of a 1963 song, “The Snake,” as a analogy for his views on immigration.
Written by deceased singer-songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. based on one of Aesop’s fables, the song tells the story of a woman who finds a frozen snake and nurses it back to health. After the snake recovers under her roof, it bites and kills the woman.
“I want great people coming into this country. I don’t want people coming in the way they do now, because I want people that contribute,” President Trump said, returning to the allegory as he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland on February 23. “So this is called ‘The Snake.’ And think of it in terms of immigration.”
In the song’s final line the snake rebukes the woman’s gullibility: “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
“And that’s what we’re doing with our country, folks. We’re letting people in, and it’s going to be a lot of trouble,” Trump said as he ended the recital to applause.
In the same speech, Trump also returned to another chief campaign point, bolstering the military. “[W]e want to protect our military,” he said. “We want to make our military stronger and better than it’s ever been before.”
Increasingly, those two promises—reforming the immigration system with a focus on security and building up U.S. military forces to peak levels—are at odds with one another.
Trump’s plans for the armed forces include boosting the resources and manpower of all four branches, including adding 100,000 active-duty troops to the Army. Meanwhile, the administration has stalled the training and deployment of enlisted immigrants, many of whom possess skills in high demand among recruiters.
The result is a policy paradox. Immigrants and their families have been stuck in legal limbo, waiting to be deployed or join basic training, sometimes so long that they lose their immigration status. By focusing on potential threats from immigrants and ignoring their unique skills, analysts say, officials are choking off a crucial pipeline of talent for the armed forces and threatening military readiness.
“It is ruining one of our great recruiting tools, U.S. citizenship,” said Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney and former U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. “It’s a classic Keystone cops situation. … It’s like watching someone who’s never been to medical school do brain surgery.”
The Will to Serve
Immigrants have taken up arms and defended the United States in every conflict dating back to the Revolutionary War. Roughly one in five Medal of Honor recipients is an immigrant, and there are more than half a million foreign-born veterans. Approximately 5,000 non-citizens enlist each year.
Erick Ruiz fantasized about joining that tradition. Ruiz, 30, first came to the United States from Brazil with his mother when he was 9. She wanted to give her son more opportunities, so they entered on tourist visas, settled in New Jersey and simply never left. Ruiz grew up in an immigrant community in Newark and didn’t fully grasp the limitations of his undocumented status until he reached high school. He couldn’t drive, couldn’t join an ROTC program and college seemed like a long shot.
When Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals launched, Ruiz applied and received his work permit. Then he heard from a friend that a military program previously only for immigrants with legal status was being opened up to DACA holders.
“Honestly, the benefits of joining the program, citizenship after training, were the farthest thing from my mind,” Ruiz said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to join the Army, not any other branch … I’ve always been fascinated by the Army, and as I grew older and saw the patriotism and respect for the military in this country, it attracted me even more. It’s something different than in Brazil.”
Ruiz joined through a program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), that was set up in 2009 to expedite citizenship for immigrants with legal status who had special language or medical skills in short supply.
Ruiz enlisted in the Army in August 2016, a month before the government suspended the program. A year and a half later he’s still waiting to go to basic training. The Pentagon was worried about “espionage potential,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently revealed, and the program was stumbling under the burden of new procedures and background checks.
“There’ve been numerous delays. I can’t even count,” Ruiz said. “There is always some new investigation, interview or background check they are doing. They have been so thorough, we must be close to CIA-level vetting.”
An internal memo from the Pentagon found that at least 1,000 enlisted immigrants had lost their residency status by June 2017 while awaiting military background checks.
In summer 2017, the government started canceling the enlistment contracts of MAVNI participants who had not passed through all of the checks yet. Then Trump announced the end of the DACA program in September 2017, pressuring Congress to come up with a more permanent solution for so-called “Dreamers” like Ruiz who were brought to the United States at a young age.
Ruiz still has his Army contract, but no start date for training, and his work permit under DACA will expire in February 2019.
Mattis has said he believes the MAVNI program can be saved, but must first be hardened against foreign infiltrators. He also declared that Dreamers enlisted in the military will not be deported, but it’s unclear how that would work if no legislative solution is found.
“I hope what Mattis said is true,” said Ruiz, who originally tried to join the Army reserves, before switching to active duty in order to qualify for the MAVNI program. “I believe in serving this country and wearing the uniform, and I’ll do it without benefits. Many have done it before me and they were not promised anything—other than a paycheck and pat on the back.”
The Right People for the Job
After 9/11, as the military took stock of what could have been done to prevent the attacks, one area for improvement was the recruitment of troops with special skills. Specifically, several pieces of useful intelligence pertaining to the attacks were never translated, because there weren’t enough Arabic and other foreign language speakers.
“Language and cultural expertise is critical when you are fighting a war,” said Stock, the immigration attorney and Army reserves veteran, who helped design the MAVNI. “The military is currently suffering from not being able to find enough qualified recruits. Participation is at its lowest historical level.”
Immigrants make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, roughly the same as the proportion of African-Americans in the country. Additionally, research shows not enough recruits born in the United States meet military entry requirements. A 2011 study concluded that permanent resident immigrants tend to be reliable recruits who last longer in the military than those born in the United States, and recommended green card holders be targeted for recruitment.
“The first generation people or those who had come as immigrants, they have a special gratitude and sacredness about this country that is different,” said Scott Cooper, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who is now director of Veterans for American Ideals at Human Rights First. “Almost to a person—and I’ve served with troops who were born in the former USSR, Mexico, Far East, all over the world—they have this special sentiment and pride for serving.”
Through the MAVNI program, immigrants living in the country legally, including people with Temporary Protected Status, refugees and asylum grantees, who have special language or medical skills can enlist and fast track citizenship, in some cases skipping the often lengthy green card process. The Department of Defense lists 50 eligible languages, including Kashmiri, Malay and Yoruba, and requires applicants commit to at least four years of active duty.
Since MAVNI recruits haven’t been in the country as long as permanent residents and their skills are often needed in special operations, they went through extra screening from the program’s inception. Still Mattis and others, including retired Army officer and Oklahoma Rep. Steve Russell, have said the program needs better security measures before it can be reinstated. No example of foreign infiltration has been offered by the Pentagon, which has not officially commented on the program’s status.
“I get frustrated by this narrative of immigrants joining to infiltrate the military,” said Cooper, who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and has worked with translators who immigrated to the United States after serving the military overseas. “There’s a big difference between people who grew up in a place and understand the language and culture, and someone who learned in a class. Those differences are huge on the battlefield and can save lives. We need those critical skills. We want people from Iraq, Jordan and Egypt to come to America, get an education, become citizens and join the military. I’m not so concerned about their loyalty. If they’re disloyal, we will find that out pretty quickly.”
Since 2009, MAVNI has produced 10,400 troops for the Army. On average, the recruits have a higher level of education and higher reenlistment rates than other soldiers, according to the Pentagon. Some units are dependent on the program. Roughly two-thirds of the dentists in the Army Reserve joined through MAVNI.
After the Obama administration introduced DACA in 2012, some immigrant advocates argued in favor of allowing recipients to join the military. Rather than create a new program, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson added DACA recipients to MAVNI.
“That was a grave error in my opinion,” Stock said. “They shoved them into MAVNI instead of their own enlistment program. But MAVNI was already totally over subscribed and wasn’t designed for the DACA population. A lot more could’ve enlisted under normal rules.”
“I’m not so concerned about their loyalty. If they’re disloyal, we will find that out pretty quickly.”
Approximately 900 DACA recipients enlisted through MAVNI before September 2016, when the Pentagon suspended the program citing security concerns. It was an abrupt change of heart from April 2015, when military brass announced plans to expand the annual cap of MAVNI enlistments from 1,500 to 5,000, saying the system “enhances the Army’s ability to accomplish its assigned missions.” In June 2017 the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General issued a report on MAVNI, but it remains classified.
“It’s reached the point of absurdity,” Stock said. “MAVNI is the most checked population that joins the military. They are more scrutinized than when a native-born citizen joins. They make them go through super-duper background checks.”
The program’s suspension has led to tough decisions for immigrants who want to serve in the military and have short-term visas for work, school or another reason. An internal memo from the Pentagon reported by the Washington Post found that at least 1,000 enlisted immigrants had lost their residency status by June 2017 while awaiting background checks.
In one case, Ranj Rafeeq, an Iraqi translator for U.S. forces in Kirkuk, immigrated to the United States to study and joined the Army through MAVNI in January 2016. When the Pentagon suspended the program and its citizenship benefits, Rafeeq’s student visa was set to expire. Rather than risk deportation back to Iraq, where he may have been targeted by ISIS, he fled to Canada and applied for asylum.
“It’s as if they have completely incompetent people in charge of personnel issues at the Pentagon,” Stock said. “Whoever is running the MAVNI program is completely incompetent. They’re acting like they’re looking for ways to destroy a valuable recruiting tool and make everyone ineligible. It’s as if a foreign intelligence service is running the Pentagon. We want no foreign language speakers, the worst possible troops and no one who speaks Russian or Chinese.”
The delays have suspended countless lives in an anxious limbo, while a 2010 report from the Migration Policy Institute estimated a legislative solution that offers the 700,000 DACA recipients legal residency would bolster the pool of military recruits by 70,000.
Further pinching the recruitment pipeline, all classes of immigrants, including green card holders, face new, heightened vetting measures. In October, the Pentagon announced permanent residents now have to wait for screening before arriving at basic training, a process that could take as long as a year. Previously, they could enlist and ship immediately, while green card holders could also naturalize while in basic training. Now they must wait 180 days after commencing active-duty service or a full year in military reserve.
“It’s no longer attractive for green card holders to enlist, because they can get naturalized faster if they don’t join,” Stock said.
In order to meet Trump’s 2018 growth targets, the Army will need 80,000 new recruits this year after setting a goal of 62,000 for fiscal year 2017.
“To meet the goals they’ll have to drop standards,” Stock said. “There will be waivers for previous criminal activity.”
‘A Waste of Talent’
The accumulation of delays, canceled enlistment contracts and increased vetting have led to a quagmire for immigrant recruitment. Apart from the hard numbers, the sudden policy shifts have also thrown thousands of families into turmoil.
Esmeralda Tovar Contreras, 21, was brought to the United States from Mexico City when she was 2 years old, entering illegally with her mother. She has never returned, and today lives in Kansas, where she works as a nurse’s assistant at a nursing home, studies nursing at the University of Kansas and is getting a degree in general and women’s studies at Wichita State University. She is also engaged to Michael Mora, a U.S. citizen in the Army National Guard who is about to be deployed overseas. Together they have a 17-month-old daughter. The couple appeared on The Jimmy Kimmel Show in January in a panel discussion with Trump supporters who argued against a deal for Dreamers. They were spotlighted on national television as an ideal example of the need for a compromise in Congress.
Contreras has a work permit under DACA that expires in October 2019. But she and her fiance worry that her status could change at any moment given the constant back-and-forth in Washington. What if she loses status while Mora is serving in the Middle East?
“We’re trying to set up a safety plan if anything were to happen. Where to stay and what to do. I know if I get taken, my mom would choose to be in my place if she could. I don’t know anything about Mexico and don’t know my family there very well,” Contreras said.
The couple has delayed any hard decisions on where their daughter would stay.
“I have not thought that through, it may be one thing I’m putting off,” Contreras said. “She is totally a mama’s girl when dad is not around. I think she would have to come with me.”
Ruiz, who is married to a permanent resident, is working for a seafood distributor in New Jersey and New York and caring for his own six-month-old daughter, born a year after he enlisted. He refuses to quit on his dream of serving.
“Hopefully, they will allow us to earn our right to stay. It is very sad that this is happening to hundreds of thousands of people. It’s a waste of talent, a waste of potential and a waste of hard-working, hard-studying people,” he said. “If I could send a message to Congress it wouldn’t be a pretty one. I’d tell them to get off their asses, stop being little kids and get their job done. This is not something that only benefits DREAMers, it benefits the country.”
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