CANCELLED CONTRACT. This photo provided by Panshu Zhao shows
Zhao in uniform on February 11, 2018 at a U.S. Army Reserve
installation in Houston, Texas. Zhao is one of dozens, if not
more, of devastated immigrant military recruits and reservists
struggling with abrupt and often inexplicable discharges and
cancelled contracts. They enlisted with a promised path to
citizenship in exchange for being willing to risk their lives, a
timeworn exchange since the Revolutionary War. (Panshu Zhao via
From The Asian Reporter, V28, #14 (July 16, 2018),
Immigrant Ph.D. candidate rocked by sudden
U.S. Army discharge
By Martha Mendoza and Garance Burke
The Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO ó 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
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 cancelled contracts. They traded being willing to
risk their lives for the prospect of U.S. citizenship, a
timeworn exchange thatís drawn linguists, medical specialists,
and thousands of other immigrants to the military since the
"Itís just like youíre dropped from heaven to hell," Zhao
told The Associated Press.
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
Some recruits say they were given no reason for their
discharge. Others said the Army informed them theyíd been
labelled as security risks because they have relatives abroad or
because the Defense Department had not completed background
checks on them.
The Pentagon said 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
individualís 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 Ph.D. in geography at Texas A&M,
but also hit the gym, prepping for boot camp. And he trained ó
in uniform ó with his unit. He had military identification and
healthcare, he said.
In April, Zhao visited Washington, D.C., for the first time,
touring the White House and visiting the Republican National
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.
"Iím not a national threat," Zhao said. "On the contrast, Iím
a national merit because people like me with higher education
and critical skills, we want to serve this great U.S. Army. Iím
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. contending that he was booted without the
Defense Department giving him a chance to defend himself or
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
The program came under fire from conservatives when President
Barack Obama added DACA recipients ó young immigrants brought to
the U.S. illegally ó 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 Trumpís 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 cancelled. A few months later, the military suspended
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 into 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 thatís why I love America."
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, D.C.,
contributed to this report.