U.S. Army recruiters have abruptly canceled enlistment contracts for hundreds of foreign-born military recruits since last week, upending their lives and potentially exposing many to deportation, according to several affected recruits and a retired Army officer and former Pentagon official familiar with their situation.
Many of these enlistees have waited years to join a troubled immigration recruitment program designed to attract highly skilled immigrants into the service in exchange for fast-track citizenship.
Now recruits and experts say that recruiters are shedding their contracts to free themselves from an onerous enlistment process, which includes extensive background investigations, to focus on individuals who can more quickly enlist and thus satisfy strict recruitment targets.
Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer who led creation of the immigration recruitment program, told The Washington Post that she has received dozens of frantic messages from recruits this week, with many more reporting similar action in Facebook groups. She said hundreds could be affected.
"It's a dumpster fire ruining people's lives. The magnitude of incompetence is beyond belief," she said. "We have a war going on. We need these people."
The nationwide disruption comes at a time when President Donald Trump navigates a political minefield, working with Democrats on the fate of "dreamers" while continuing to stoke his anti-immigrant base. It was not immediately clear if Pentagon officials have taken hard-line immigration stances from the White House as a signal to ramp down support for its foreign-born recruitment program.
Stock said a recruiter told her there was pressure from the recruiting command to release foreign-born recruits, with one directive suggesting they had until Sept. 14 to cut them loose without counting against their recruiting targets, an accounting quirk known as "loss forgiveness."
The recruiter told Stock the Army Reserve is struggling to meet its numbers before the fiscal year closes Sept. 30, and canceling on resource-intensive recruits is attractive to some recruiters.
On Friday, the Pentagon denied ordering a mass cancellation of immigrant recruit contracts and said there were no incentives to do so. Officials said that recent directives to recruiters were meant to reiterate immigrant recruits must be separated within two years of enlistment unless they "opt in" for an additional year.
But some recruits among half a dozen interviewed for this article said they were not approaching that two-year limit when their contracts were canceled, sowing confusion about the reason they were cut loose. The Pentagon declined to address whether messages to recruiters contained language that could have been misinterpreted.
Some anti-immigration sentiment has swirled in the Pentagon for years, former staffers have said, where personnel and security officials from the Barack Obama administration larded the immigrant recruiting process with additional security checks for visa holders already vetted by the Departments of State and Homeland Security.
"Immigrant recruits are already screened far more than any other recruits we have," Naomi Verdugo, a former senior recruiting official for the Army at the Pentagon, told The Post, including one American who fought with Russian-backed militants in Ukraine but enlisted in the U.S. Army without triggering suspicion.
"It seems like overkill, but there seems to be a sense that no matter what background check you do, it's never enough," she said.
Verdugo, along with Stock, helped implement the program. One Indian immigrant, a Harvard graduate and early recruit who is now a Special Forces soldier and served in Iraq, was called back to undertake the updated security checks, she said.
"Even though you're in the Army, even though you're naturalized, these policies say 'we're not going to treat you like any other soldier,'" Verdugo said of the concerns over immigrants held by some at the Pentagon.
Internal Pentagon documents obtained by The Post have said the immigrant recruitment program, formally known as the Military Accessions to Vital National Interest (MAVNI), was suspended last fall after the clearance process was paralyzed and officials voiced concern over foreign infiltrators, though it remains unclear if any actual threats have ever materialized.
Lola Mamadzhanova, who immigrated to the United States from Kyrgyzstan in 2009, said she heard that Army recruiters in Evanston, Illinois, texted immigrant recruits last week asking whether they still wanted to enlist, with an unusual condition: They had 10 minutes to respond. She never received the text message.
"The recruiters did some dirty trick just to get me out so I won't be trouble anymore," Mamadzhanova, 27, told The Post on Thursday. Her active-duty contract was canceled Sept. 7, according to a separation document obtained by The Post that said she "declined to enlist." She later learned the recruiters used a wrong number to text her.
The senior recruiter at the station contacted by The Post declined to comment and called Mamadzhanova seven minutes afterward to reverse previous guidance, saying her unlawful immigration status was the reason she was released. She enlisted in December 2015, which puts her three months outside the two-year limit.
Mamadzhanova was assured by other recruiters that her status would not be an issue and she would ship for training soon after her immigration status slipped around her enlistment date. Mamadzhanova, who is fluent in Russian, said the shifting and unclear rules have blindsided her.
"Joining the Army was a dream of mine since America has treated me so well," she said. She applied for asylum in April, joining other recruits who have either sought asylum or fled.
Experts say the relatively small number of recruits in the MAVNI program possess skills with outsize value, such as foreign languages highly sought by Special Operations Command. The program has rotated 10,400 troops into the military, mostly the Army, since its inception in 2009.
Although the military says it benefits from these recruits, they can generate a disproportionate amount of work for recruiters who must navigate an enormous amount of regulations and shifting policies. The layered security checks can add months or years to the enlistment process, which frustrate recruiters who must meet strictly enforced goals by quickly processing recruits.
In a summer memo, the Pentagon lists 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 troops 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 Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to intervene on behalf of those recruits.
Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., filed an amendment in the defense authorization bill Tuesday to retain MAVNI recruits until their lengthy background investigations are finished.
"These brave men & women enlisted & the Administration turns its back on them," Harris tweeted Friday. "We must pass Sen. Durbin's & my bill to protect these recruits."
During July 19 testimony in a lawsuit filed by recruits who said the federal government unlawfully delayed their naturalizations, Justice Department attorney Colin Kisor assured the district court in Washington that recruits would only see their contracts canceled if "derogatory" information was found in extensive background investigations.
Mamadzhanova and others said their screenings, which take months to complete, have begun recently and could not have returned results.
Meanwhile, confusion reigned for recruits in multiple states.
At one office in Illinois, a senior recruiter restored a contract less than two hours after The Post inquired about a case. In Texas, a recruiter did the same 12 minutes after a call seeking to confirm whether a recruit's contract was canceled.
An immigrant recruit who came to the United States in 2006 and enlisted in Virginia said her contract was canceled Tuesday after waiting for two years, just as her legal immigration status expired. Recruiters had assured her, saying her contract was a shield from federal immigration authorities, she said. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
She now fears deportation to her native Indonesia, which strips native-born people of citizenship if they enlist in a foreign military or pledge loyalty to another country, as she has done.
"I feel devastated," she said. "The Army was my only hope."
Alex Horton reports for the Washington Post