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Don't Tell These DREAMers To Join The Military. They're Trying.

Hundreds of DACA recipients have agreed to join the US military. But delays plague the program that grants them citizenship for their service.

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Ali Al-saadi / AFP / Getty Images

US soldiers taking their citizenship oath in 2010 at Camp Victory in Baghdad. A popular Pentagon program to reward immigrant recruits with citizenship has ground to a halt.

WASHINGTON — In Facebook groups for DACA recipients enlisted in the US military, tweets telling them they should join the military to stay in the country were shared this week with grim irony: There's nothing they'd like more.

“All we want to do is serve," said William Medeiros, a 24-year old Army recruit who runs one of the groups. "We enlisted and had our whole lives planned, and now we’re just waiting. They’re using us, our lives, as a bargaining chip.”

Even before the Trump administration's announcement Tuesday that it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Pentagon had been imposing increasingly strict background checks on immigrants who'd enlisted in the US military through a program that offers a fast track to citizenship in exchange for highly sought language and medical skills. Those recruits includes many with DACA status, who've been allowed to enlist since 2014 and now face an uncertain future.

For Medeiros, Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement that the Trump administration was ending DACA was surreal.

“He was saying, ‘We have to act [against DACA] now to prevent terrorism and national security threats.' How does that make any sense?” he asked. “I enlisted to protect against that. I came here when I was 6, and I have never left the country. I don’t even have a speeding ticket.”

Medeiros, who was born in Brazil and speaks fluent Portuguese, enlisted in the US Army last August through a program known as MAVNI — Military Accessions Vital to National Interest. More than 10,400 immigrant recruits have earned their citizenship through the program since 2009, but it was put on hold indefinitely last fall after the Pentagon raised concerns about security risks and the costs associated with extra vetting. Sessions himself has expressed concerns about the program in the past.

As a result, roughly 1,000 foreign-born recruits who've signed their enlistment contracts but have yet to be told to report to basic training may face deportation if their permission to be in the country expires, according to an internal Pentagon memo first reported by the Washington Post.

When Medeiros’s background checks first stalled, he wasn’t alarmed. He'd committed to enlist, and his DACA status protected him.

“We didn’t have the slightest idea that Trump was going to get in and discontinue the program,” he said.

Like many DREAMers in the military, Medeiros is counting his remaining months under protected status, calculating whether it will be long enough to go to basic training and serve. He says he knows too many recruits whose legal status expired while they waited in vain for the military to process their pending background checks.

While he is optimistic, having just recently renewed his status, others aren’t as lucky. Only DACA recipients whose permits expire before March 5 next year can renew them for another two-year period.

“People who have theirs expiring in April are freaking out,” Medeiros said.

Harminder Saini, a 23-year-old Army recruit, was at the gym as the news about DACA was breaking. He still works out regularly to get ready for basic training — something he was originally scheduled to begin last November.

“The news was so disheartening — there are just so many question marks in the future for us right now,” he said. “It’s double for us in the military — we don’t know what’s going to happen with DACA, and we don’t know what’s going to happen with MAVNI.”

Saini came to the US from India when he was 6 years old. He remembers being held in a detention center in Tampa with his mother for a month. His fluency in Punjabi, a language spoken in Pakistan and India, made him eligible to enter the US Army through MAVNI, and he enlisted in February 2016, during his junior year at Hunter College in New York. He was told to be ready for basic training in November.

A history major, he became obsessed with studying the military, preparing for what he hoped would be a long career. But after the new background requirements were imposed, his ship-out date came and went, and he is still waiting to be cleared.

“I plan to serve a long time in the military, and all this stuff has kind of taken over my life,” he said. “I hope to become an officer and do big things. I’ve been watching a lot of military history films, going to the gym to stay fit. If the [Pentagon] calls tomorrow, I want to be prepared.”

New guidelines put in place by the Obama administration last fall require MAVNI recruits to maintain their immigration status in order to ship to basic training, after which they will be eligible for US citizenship. The Trump administration's announcement has injected a new urgency for DREAMers who've enlisted but are still waiting to be processed.

“DACA recipients can no longer ship if they don’t maintain their DACA status,” Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer and lawyer who founded the MAVNI program, told BuzzFeed News. She said the additional layers of vetting that are snarling the system and taking up Pentagon resources are unnecessary.

“If you’re really worried about threats to the military, look somewhere else,” she said. Immigrant recruits, especially DREAMers, “are the least likely to be a security risk because they are the most vulnerable if they get caught,” she said.

After having subjected them to rigorous vetting for both their DACA and military recruitment, the US government has all their and their family’s information.

“They would be risking their immigration status or their newly acquired citizenship if they do anything criminal,” she said. “With native-born Americans, nothing happens to them except some time in jail.”

Even if they are able to go through basic training, serve in the military, and fulfill all the requirements for citizenship, it is not a guarantee that everything will work out. Immigrant soldiers have recently sued the Pentagon for stalling their citizenship applications. Already-naturalized soldiers have also sued the military for denying them career opportunities, accusing the Defense Department of discriminating against them because of their nation of origin.

“The Pentagon is changing its policy in response to lawsuits to deprive them of their rights,” Stock said. “Lawyers have a weak case for stalling immigrant soldiers’ citizenship applications, so they are trying to prevent them from filing for it by having the Army withhold their certifications. It’s really bad behavior from the government.”

The Pentagon declined to comment due to pending litigation.

When asked about what will happen to DACA recruits, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday said the administration has “confidence that Congress is going to step up and do their job."

DACA recruits say they'll be watching closely as they see their time running out.

“I just really hope that Congress or the [Pentagon] work something out,” Saini said. “When I came here I was just 6. We didn’t know what was going on. Now we want to serve our country, we want to help our families.”

Vera Bergengruen is a Pentagon reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Vera Bergengruen at vera.bergengruen@buzzfeed.com.

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