|OWEN FREEMAN / THE NEW YORK TIMES|
Beyond the lies and distortions, threats, cover-ups, rank corruption and endless stream of firings and forced resignations, there is another constant in the Donald Trump autocracy: Reaching an obscene new low in desecrating American values and traditions and then exceeding that new low. But it will take some effort to surpass a secret order to discharge or question the legal status of immigrants in the armed forces suddenly deemed security risks before they have served long enough to qualify for expedited naturalization, an exemplary program that has turned out hundreds of thousands of men and women who earned their citizenship by serving their adopted country that traces its origins to the Revolutionary War.
Many of the soldiers who fought America's battles have been immigrants and more than 700 of them have been awarded the Medal of Honor, but immigration attorneys tell The Associated Press and New York Times that they know of more than 40 Army recruits who have been discharged or whose status has become questionable because of Trump's nativist agenda, thereby jeopardizing their futures.
Some of these immigrants will now carry discharge documents that unjustly and incorrectly label them a security risk, delaying or precluding their path to citizenship.
Thousands more recruits are stuck in limbo -- enlisted but unable to serve -- even as the Army is unable to meet its 2018 recruiting goals. Some of the recruits enlisted under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program because they have valuable language and medical skills.
After the 9/11 attacks through 2017, a time when the U.S. armed forces have been stretched to the breaking point because of lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 125,452 service members were naturalized.
The last Republican president, George W. Bush, accelerated the enlistments in 2002 when he put about 15,000 immigrant troops on a fast track to citizenship, while the MAVNI program, which has attracted about 10,000 immigrants, was created in 2008.
In the case of Marine Lance Corporal José Gutiérrez, who was killed in Iraq after growing up as an orphan in Guatemala, Bush granted him postumous citizenship. But Trump has used the military as a cudgel to weed out immigrants and has further used it to segregate citizens from immigrants who happen to lack citizenship, going so far as to detain immigrants and their children -- sometimes separately -- at military installations.
Some of the service members say they were not told why they were being discharged, while others said the Army informed them they had been labeled as security risks because they have relatives abroad or because the Defense Department had not completed background checks on them.
The layers of clearance have grown so complex that a backlog of several thousand cases has piled up, and a Defense Department official testified in a recent deposition that it would take 10 years to clear those currently waiting to serve.
A Pakistani immigrant who fears he would be harmed if he is forced to return home is among the thousands caught in limbo.
He was able to get his security report in May through a Freedom of Information Act request. The report noted the immigrant, an electrical engineering student recruited to repair generators, had dreamed of moving to the U.S. since he was 5 and "has such a deep and longstanding loyalty to the U.S., that he can be expected to resolve any conflict of interest in favor of the U.S."
In June, he was told he had failed his security background check and was being discharged.
An unreleased 2017 RAND Corporation report that found MAVNI recruits have not posed an undue security threat, were generally better educated and better performing than average enlisted soldiers, and noted that there had been no instances of terrorism or espionage connected to an immigrant recruit.
"It was my dream to serve in the military,” said reservist Lucas Calixto, an immigrant from the terrorist hotbed of Brazil who has filed a lawsuit against the Army because he got the boot. "Since this country has been so good to me, I thought it was the least I could do to give back to my adopted country and serve in the United States military."
Pentagon and the Army spokespeople say that due to pending litigation, they are unable to explain the discharges or respond to questions about whether there have been policy changes.
Eligible recruits are required to have legal status in the U.S. such as a student visa before enlisting and an estimated 10,000 are currently serving. Most serve in the Army, but some also go to the other military branches. To become citizens, these service members need an honorable service designation, which can come after even just a few days at boot camp in order to accelerate the naturalization process, but the service members recently discharged under questionable circumstances have had their basic training delayed, so they can’t be naturalized.
Trump's anti-immigrant agenda is, of course, built on xenophobia. And a big lie.
"They're taking our jobs . . . They're taking our money. They're killing us," he said early and often as a candidate and since as president. The reality is that immigrants typically take the entry-level jobs most Americans don't want, including being cooks, waiters and waitresses at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's so-called Winter White House, where the management last week petitioned the feds to hire 61 foreign workers. And it should be noted that Trump outsourced two-thirds of his wives from Eastern Europe.
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney and a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who helped create MAVNI, says she has been inundated over the past several days by recruits who have been abruptly discharged. All had signed enlistment contracts and taken an Army oath. Many were reservists who had been attending unit drills, receiving pay and undergoing training.
It is certain that neither Secretary of Defense James Mattis nor Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will stop Trump from poisoning the military with his anti-immigrant policies.
Some members of Congress have tried to help immigrants who have served in the military, and in 2008 Gutiérrez's name was used to title a bipartisan bill that could have offered additional protections for noncitizen veterans of the armed forces had it not died in the House. Mike Pence, then a representative from Indiana, was a co-sponsor.
"Immigrants have been serving in the Army since 1775," Stock said. "We wouldn't have won the revolution without immigrants. And we're not going to win the global war on terrorism today without immigrants."
Lizamara Bedolla and Maria Daume epitomize this spirit.
Army First Lieutenant Bedolla came of age during the Nicaraguan revolution and subsequent Contra War that wracked the country during the 1980s. Her family finally fled to Houston when Bedolla was 4. Today she would have been incarcerated and possibly separated from her parents before being deported, but in 2001 she was able to enlist and is now an experienced combat nurse who was deployed to Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003.
"Nursing has helped me gain much more empathy and sympathy than I thought was possible," she says. "Whatever my idea of empathy was 16 years ago, has completely grown while serving . . . The Army has taught me a lot about tolerance, self-awareness, patience and has opened my eyes to the different people that are all over this country and abroad."
Marine Private Daume and her twin brother were born in a prison in Siberia, where their mother was imprisoned. They lived there for two years until their mother’s death, then landed in a Russian orphanage before their adoption by a Long Island family. In March 2017, Duame became the first female Marine to join the infantry through its traditional training pipeline at the age of 18, joining the Fleet Marine Force as a mortarman.
"I want to fight ISIS," Daume explains. "Even though everybody in the military fights, I want to be a grunt. I think everything about it is for me, and I want to prove that females can do it."