“Deeming a recruit’s relationship with his or her parents as “derogatory” and basis enough to discharge a recruit from applying skills, education, and experience to serve for the U.S. armed services puts into question the helpfulness of these new checks.”
“In addition to being discriminatory and costly, the DOD has failed to provide any public cost-benefit analysis for these new policies, and to date, no serious threats have been uncovered by the new background checks.”
America’s military serves in more than 100 countries around the world, and proudly counts many immigrants among its troops. Immigrants have been welcomed into the ranks of the United States military since 1775, and earning citizenship through military service has been a longstanding American tradition. But while the U.S. government promises those immigrant troops they will be treated equally and fairly, in accordance with American values, immigrants in recent years face unnecessary barriers to serve, and increasingly struggle to access the earned benefits of their service. This in turn hinders our military readiness and prevents committed patriots from contributing their skills.
In 2017, the Department of Defense (DOD) began implementing new policies that have dramatically expanded post-enlistment “security screening” of all immigrants who enlist, which exceed those undergone by some of our highest-ranking officers. These new protocols have forced the discharge of hundreds of immigrants, delayed immigrants’ initial training for prolonged periods of time, and prevented immigrants from becoming citizens, all without any reference to evidence that immigrants as a group are any more dangerous than native-born Americans. Although DOD claims extra vetting of immigrants is “in the national interest,” a deep dive into the reality of the screening reveals the extreme requirements are based on false assumptions.
All applicants for military service—citizens and noncitizens alike—undergo multiple background checks, including a criminal background check, fingerprint check, FBI and intelligence agency checks, a medical exam, and a credit check. Unlike other recruits, immigrants must also be vetted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to verify their immigration status. These checks are completed before the person even enlists.
Nonetheless, without any justification of how it is in the “national interest” to do so, DoD in 2017 began requiring immigrant enlistees to complete enhanced, DoD-supervised checks that are not done on native-born recruits. Such enhanced checks were not previously necessary for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who served in the U.S. armed services, for example, those who fought against the Nazis for the U.S. during World War II. A federal judge ultimately struck down the enhanced screening requirements, but the damage was done.
Unfortunately, these additional background checks were costly, lengthy, and regularly provide invalid information. For example, it was common to see a DOD “background check” report justify a “derogatory” finding resulting in an immigrant recruit being discharged based on the recruit maintaining routine contact with his or her parents who are citizens of and reside in another country.
Deeming a recruit’s relationship with his or her parents as “derogatory” and basis enough to discharge a recruit from applying skills, education, and experience to serve for the U.S. armed services puts into question the helpfulness of these checks.
The underlying premise of the new DOD checks appears to be that anyone foreign is dangerous, reasoning that has been determined to be discriminatory and unconstitutional. As one federal judge put it, the extensive screening for immigrants “displays a general lack of trust… without needing to identify a basis for suspicion.” As a result of these new checks, immigrants were being told they would be discharged from the military years after enlisting, despite having multiple deployments, a stellar service record, promotions, and no record of any misbehavior, all because they are foreign.
Consider the case of Alina Kaliuzhna, a highly educated immigrant from Ukraine. The Army enlisted her in 2015 and trained her to be a combat medic. After years of “background checks,” the Army then determined that her “foreign ties” required her discharge. Just ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic national emergency, the Army gave her an honorable discharge, thereby losing a valuable soldier on whom the Army had already spent thousands of dollars. Kaliuzhna is now a United States citizen and an honorably discharged veteran, but she was kicked out of the military solely due to her “foreign ties,” an unavoidable fact of her immigrant origins. Kaliuzhna does not stand alone; hundreds of other immigrants have been similarly told that they are unsuitable to serve.
In 2017, a group of American soldiers sued the DOD over some of the discriminatory checks. Kirti Tiwari, the lead plaintiff, was a naturalized citizen from India who had been nominated for the NASA astronaut program. He was abruptly disqualified from the program because he had enlisted in the Army as an immigrant. Tiwari and the other soldiers who sued argued successfully in federal court that DOD’s enhanced security requirements were discriminatory and violated the Constitution’s principle of equal protection. The federal judge overseeing the case concluded that the “national security” concerns about immigrants were exaggerated and could not justify DOD’s across-the-board discriminatory post-enlistment “security” screening in the absence of individual cause.
An unpublished study by the RAND corporation backed up the judge’s conclusions, finding that there were no special security risks in having immigrants serve the U.S. armed services—or in other words, there was no public evidence that immigrants posed any more of a security concern as compared to native-born recruits. The study also found that the costs of background checks for some immigrant recruits were already 500% higher than the costs for other recruits, because of heightened screening requirements, and notes that the increased screening will drive costs up more.
In addition to being discriminatory and costly, the DOD has failed to provide any public cost-benefit analysis for these new policies, and to date, no serious threats have been uncovered by the new background checks.
No one would dispute that immigrants who enlist must pass the same background checks as everyone else, and there’s nothing wrong with having DHS check their immigraton status before they enlist. To re-welcome immigrants into military service, Congress and the Administration should take steps to ensure all qualified men and women who want to serve America in uniform are able to do so, including guaranteeing access to expedited citizenship, reinstating USCIS’ Basic Training Initiative, and an examination of how broader legal immigration restrictions introduced in the past few years have contributed to declines in enlistment and naturalizations. Congress should also work to reinstate the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program to ensure those individuals who were able to enlist before the program’s suspension are allowed to begin their service and naturalize when eligible.