Immigrant PhD candidate rocked by sudden US Army discharge
By MARTHA MENDOZA AND GARANCE BURKE
Saturday, July 7
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Growing up in eastern China, Panshu Zhao fell in love with America. He read the Bible his parents gave him, watched Hollywood movies and studied the ideals of democracy. He jumped at the chance to attend graduate school at Texas A&M University.
In 2016, Zhao enlisted in the U.S. Army as part of a special recruitment program offering immigrants in the country legally a path to citizenship.
The future, he said, was bright.
Now, he is one of the dozens of immigrant recruits and reservists struggling with abrupt, often unexplained military discharges and canceled contracts. They traded being willing to risk their lives for the prospect of U.S. citizenship, a timeworn exchange that’s drawn linguists, medical specialists and thousands of other immigrants to the military since the Revolutionary War.
“It’s just like you’re dropped from heaven to hell,” Zhao told The Associated Press on Friday.
It is unclear how many men and women who enlisted through the special recruitment program have been ousted from the Army, but immigration attorneys told the AP that they know of more than 40 recruits who recently have been discharged or whose status has become questionable.
Some recruits say they were given no reason for their discharge. Others said the Army informed them they’d been labeled as security risks because they have relatives abroad or because the Defense Department had not completed background checks on them.
The Pentagon said Friday that there has been no policy change since last year, when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said no one could enter basic training without completion of a background investigation.
And Army spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said that any enlistee entering the military undergoes security screenings.
“Each recruit undergoes an individualized suitability review and the length of time for the review is dependent upon each individual’s unique background,” Smith said.
Zhao, 31, said his “ship out” date to basic training was delayed for two years as he underwent background checks, counterintelligence interviews and rigorous reviews added as requirements for immigrant enlistees.
He continued to pursue his PhD in geography at Texas A&M but also hit the gym, prepping for boot camp. And he trained — in uniform — with his unit. He had military identification and health care, he said.
In April, Zhao visited Washington, D.C., for the first time, touring the White House and visiting the Republican National Committee.
That same month, he got word from his unit commander: He was being discharged. He was told simply that his discharge was “uncharacterized,” he said.
“I’m not a national threat,” Zhao said. “On the contrast, I’m a national merit because people like me with higher education and critical skills, we want to serve this great U.S. Army. I’m a good scientist no matter what.”
The Pentagon announced last October that in order to apply for citizenship, immigrant recruits were required to have gone through basic training and served honorably for either 180 days or a year, depending on their Army classification. But that requirement has been challenged in court.
Some discharged service members whose basic training was delayed cannot start the naturalization process. Others who started the process have had their applications put on hold.
Immigration attorneys told the AP that many immigrants let go in recent weeks received an “uncharacterized discharge,” which is neither dishonorable nor honorable.
A Brazilian reservist, Lucas Calixto, filed a lawsuit in Washington, D.C., last week contending that he was booted without the Defense Department giving him a chance to defend himself or appeal.
President George W. Bush ordered “expedited naturalization” for immigrant soldiers in 2002 in an effort to swell military ranks. Seven years later, the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, known as MAVNI, became an official recruiting program.
The program came under fire from conservatives when President Barack Obama added DACA recipients — young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally — to the list of eligible enlistees. In response, the military layered on additional security clearances for recruits to pass before heading to boot camp.
Donald Trump’s administration added even more hurdles, creating a backlog within the Defense Department. Last fall, hundreds of recruits still in the enlistment process had their contracts canceled. A few months later, the military suspended MAVNI.
Republican Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland, who has supported legislation to limit the program, told the AP that MAVNI was established by executive order.
“Our military must prioritize enlisting American citizens, and restore the MAVNI program to its specialized, limited scope,” he said.
According to Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman, the “overwhelming majority” of MAVNI candidates are from Asia and Africa because those are the critical language skills needed in the military.
As of April, 1,100 immigrant recruits were awaiting basic training while undergoing security reviews, the Pentagon said.
Eligible recruits are required to have legal status in the U.S., such as a student visa, before enlisting. More than 5,000 immigrants were recruited into the program in 2016, and an estimated 10,000 are currently serving. Most go the Army, but some also go to the other military branches.
Zhao is now rethinking his future, but said he wishes he had a chance to appeal.
“I need justice,” he said. “This is America. This is not China. This is not the Middle East. This is not a dictatorship. And that’s why I love America.”
Associated Press Writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Abolishing ICE Isn’t Radical — It’s Rational
ICE is supposed to keep Americans safe. Instead, it’s terrorizing refugees, families, and small children.
By Fizz Perkal | Jul 3, 2018
As someone who was born and raised in the border state of New Mexico, I’m very familiar with political speak about immigrants and the border, especially when it comes to talking about safety.
After 9/11, concerns about safety led to the passing of the Homeland Security Act, which created a new cabinet department as well as a new law enforcement agency: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. ICE was given a never-before-seen level of criminal and civil authority — in theory, to keep Americans safe.
It’s now the largest investigative branch of the Homeland Security department. Unlike other law enforcement agencies like the FBI or DEA, ICE doesn’t answer to the Department of Justice, which for decades has at least paid lip service to due process.
Far from being a law enforcement agency, ICE has become the closest thing we have to a lawless organization.
Rather than keeping Americans safe, the organization has become a menace, wasting taxpayer money while doing tremendous violence to communities that pose no threat. From separating families to having 3-year-olds stand trial for deportation, and from staking out churches to stealing immigrants’ identities to open up fraudulent credit cards, ICE embodies cruelty.
More worrying still, people are dying in ICE custody at alarming rates.
In May, a transgender woman from Honduras named Roxsana Hernandez died in ICE custody in New Mexico. Roxsana came to the United States seeking asylum from persecution and violence in her home country.
Rather than being treated with the dignity and respect befitting all humans, and particularly those seeking asylum, she was detained by ICE and held in a freezing cold cell with the lights turned on 24 hours a day. This approach to detention is so common it has a name — the icebox, because the cells feel as cold as a freezer.
As a queer, gender non-conforming New Mexican, this hit close to home for me. Not only did Roxsana come to this country because she wanted the safety to live her life as her authentic self, but she died in Albuquerque, my hometown. She died a terrifying and lonely death due to complications of pneumonia, likely caused by the frigid conditions of her detention.
I have to say: Her death certainly doesn’t make me any safer.
In another devastating case, Pablo Villavicencio, an undocumented man originally from Ecuador, was detained by ICE while he was delivering pizza to a military base in New York City. Pablo lives in New York with his wife and young children, all of whom are U.S. citizens. His detention and possible deportation certainly won’t make me, or anyone else, any safer.
ICE was created to protect the U.S. from terrorism. But it seems the biggest threats they can identify are refugees and workers supporting their families. If you ask me, ICE is the one terrorizing people.
Unfortunately, ICE has become even more aggressive in the past 18 months — and not just against people from Mexico and Central America. The number of Haitians deported rose from 300 in 2016 to 5,500 in 2017 — as if almost the entire city of Aspen, Colorado were deported. The rate of deportation for people from Somalia nearly doubled during the same time.
To what end?
At this point, ICE’s targeting of families and non-threatening individuals makes it clear that it’s beyond reform. Immigrants aren’t threats to the nation’s security — they’re people, just like you and me, who are trying to make the best of their circumstances.
We need to find better ways to make sure our communities are safe without relying on a lawless, violent organization. It can’t be that hard — we did it for centuries before the Homeland Security Act. ICE must be abolished.
Fizz Perkal is a Next Leader at the Institute for Policy Studies. Distributed by OtherWords.org.
Border Fears Riddled with Holes
Despite the rhetoric from immigration hardliners, we are indeed securing our borders.
By Raul A. Reyes | Jan 23, 2013
Senator John Cornyn recently discussed immigration reform at a meeting of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “I think there have to be some conditions satisfied. One is that people know we’ve done everything we can to secure the border,” the Republican said at the Austin event.
The Texan lawmaker warned that a “porous” border could leave the country “vulnerable to the sorts of attacks that we sustained on 9/11.”
Cornyn and other Republicans just don’t get it. Although securing the border is important, studies show that we’ve already done that. The biggest problem facing our immigration system isn’t border security. It’s what to do with the undocumented immigrants who are already here. The solution is to create a path to citizenship for them, and the time to do it is now.
Regarding immigrants and the threat of terrorism, recall that all 19 of the 9/11 hijackers had valid tourist visas. Increased border security alone wouldn’t have prevented them from entering the country.
GOP lawmakers like Cornyn have long favored an enforcement-first approach to immigration. A new study conducted by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute shows that this is already in place. Consider that the U.S. spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other law enforcement agencies combined. Last year, we spent nearly $18 billion on immigration enforcement, roughly 24 percent more than the total spending on the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Agency, and other agencies.
Meanwhile, government statistics show that deportations hit a record high in 2012, and the Pew Center reports that illegal immigration is at “net zero” or even lower. So despite the rhetoric from immigration hardliners, we are indeed securing our borders.
Still, Representative Phil Gingrey (R-GA) told The New York Times that the Obama administration was weak on enforcement. He pledged to “continue working to secure our borders and enforce existing immigration law.” However, the Center for American Progress notes that the border security benchmarks set by Republicans during the 2007 immigration debate have largely been met. In fact, the goals for increasing border agents, increasing border barriers, and increasing penalties for illegal crossings have all been surpassed. More than 80 percent of the border meets one of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) three highest standards for control.
Cornyn, Gingrey, and other conservatives are stuck on the notion that we need more and more immigration enforcement, and they ignore the reality of what’s already in place and clear signs that undocumented immigration is declining. We can further militarize the border and throw more money at programs like Secure Communities — yet we will still have 11 million undocumented people living among us.
The American public recognizes that this is unacceptable; 62 percent of registered voters favor a path to citizenship for the undocumented, according to a December poll by Politico. Although Republicans may dislike the idea of citizenship for the undocumented, which they incorrectly term “amnesty,” it’s an essential component of immigration reform.
By the way, no one is proposing amnesty for the undocumented. Amnesty is a free pass. Comprehensive reform would require undocumented immigrants to pay fines, back taxes, and undergo background checks before they qualify for any adjustment in their immigration status. That’s not amnesty. That’s earned citizenship.
True, our border is not 100 percent sealed. But Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano is correct in her opinion that people who want the border totally secured are misguided. “There’s no border in the world that doesn’t have some form of migration, legal and illegal,” she told NPR. “So saying it has to be zero is like saying we have to put the United States under some sort of Tupperware container and seal it off. That’s not how our country operates.”
The calls for border security have become little more than an excuse to defer comprehensive immigration reform again and again. Enough already. Good sense and sound policy dictate that lawmakers craft a path to citizenship for our undocumented population — and finally solve our immigration mess.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist. He lives in New York City.
Building an Underclass of Workers
Journalists should report on the consequences of immigration reform without citizenship.
By Jason Salzman | Jul 24, 2013
You’ve probably heard that America has millions of undocumented immigrants. Maybe one of them lives next door to you. Or there’s one lurking on your roof. Or another lying nearby on the beach.
My kids go to school with undocumented immigrants. They play on the same soccer teams. We bump into their parents at the grocery store.
Congress is debating whether these people, who number over 11 million in our country, should be granted a “path to citizenship” as part of overarching legislation to reform the U.S. immigration system.
Everyone agrees that America’s immigration system needs fixing. The sticking point is whether immigrants should eventually be able to earn the right to be called Americans. My own “illegal-immigrant” in-laws did just that by paying fines, passing background checks, and taking tests, among other things.
Republicans in the House of Representatives want to pass a bill without a path to citizenship. Those lawmakers want to focus on border security first and possibly citizenship later. It could wind up being citizenship never.
Lost in the media coverage of this debate is what life would look like for immigrants if America doesn’t offer citizenship to the immigrants who’ve become part of our country.
Presumably, our country instead would grant work permits. That would bring our immigrant neighbors out of the shadows, but not as equal partners.
We’d create a working underclass that, the way I see it, is about as un-American as it gets.
It wouldn’t be straight-up slavery or indentured servitude. Neither would it be Jim Crow America.
It would be closer to the relationship between South Africa and the country of Lesotho post-apartheid, when the Lesotho miners would go to South Africa to live and work but not become South Africans.
The closest model might, ironically enough, be the colonists, whose complaint of taxation without representation would apply once again.
The picture of millions of “legal” immigrants with no voting rights gets ugly when you start thinking about it in the context of those pesky American values like democracy.
Or maybe not. Maybe this is what 21st-Century American opportunity looks like for Republicans who oppose the path to citizenship. Maybe mere legal status is sufficient for them.
If so, fair enough. But journalists who write that House Republicans oppose a path to citizenship should flip their perspective and also report that GOP opponents favor the official creation of an underclass of American workers. Let’s hear more from reporters about the GOP vision of what America looks like with a class of pseudo-citizens who are fundamentally unequal to the rest of us.
A former media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, Jason Salzman is board chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and author of Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits. BigMedia.org
The GOP’s Empty Rhetoric on Obama’s Immigration Record
This administration is deporting immigrants at a record pace.
By Matias Ramos | Nov 7, 2011
The Obama administration, which is currently deporting a record 400,000 people each year, took a minor step to protect immigrants. Now many Republicans are accusing him of treason. “Potential illegal immigrants may surge across the border making it difficult for the border patrol,” Rep. Candice Miller (R-MI) said at a recent hearing.
Under a new policy instituted in August, immigration agents and judges are supposed to use more “discretion” when deciding whether to deport someone. Immigration enforcement has allowed for some discretion for “appealing human factors” since 1975, but under the new rule the government is explicitly focusing on deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records. People who have studied hard, have family members who are U.S. citizens, or have lived in the United States for most of their lives, are a lower priority.
In September, I was shackled with an electronic device during a routine check-in with immigration authorities. Based on my personal experience, I can assure you that the authorities and their contractors aren’t applying this “discretion” across the board.
But Republicans in Congress have responded as though this new policy, which isn’t even fully in force, will crush the immigration enforcement system.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee that new policy isn’t some kind of “administrative amnesty.” That’s the term that anti-immigrant Republicans apply when they think the immigration bureaucracy is creating a path to citizenship — without the requisite action by Congress.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa led the charge, calling the new policy a “blatant attempt to circumvent Congress.” His counterparts in the House of Representatives have made similar accusations. Some lawmakers have even proposed temporarily removing certain immigration powers from the executive branch.
The “Hinder the Administration’s Legalization Temptation” (HALT) Act, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), would suspend discretionary forms of immigration protection and relief until January 21, 2013. Does that date ring a bell? It’s the day after President Barack Obama’s first term (or entire presidency, depending on what happens at the polls next year) comes to an end.
Among other restrictions, the HALT Act would take away the administration’s ability to protect the most vulnerable immigrants. It would condemn all undocumented people to deportation for the slightest of infractions — or no infractions at all. It would tell people who know only this country that they simply can’t prove their American identity.
By law, the Obama administration can’t act alone to grant a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
But there’s something the federal government should do: pass an executive order to grant relief to the groups that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has identified as deserving “discretion,” thus allowing those least likely to be deported to apply for legal work permits.
The Obama administration is waging court battles around the country to block efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to restrict immigrants’ civil rights. Infamous “papers please” laws in Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia could foster racial profiling. Many Republican members of Congress and their counterparts in state legislatures seem united in their zeal to accelerate Obama’s record deportation rate. They’re eager to take away the powers of the executive branch in order to do so.
In the same way that Obama directed ICE to exercise discretion in preventing people’s deportations, he can order immigration authorities to allow those same undocumented immigrants apply for legal work authorization.
This next small step would take people out of their legal limbo and into a position where they can better contribute to our society and economy.
It would also enable Obama to rise above the empty rhetoric and provide a common-sense solution to a long-standing national challenge.
Matias Ramos, the Institute for Policy Studies’ Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman fellow, is a formerly undocumented student and a co-founder of the United We Dream Network. www.ips-dc.org