US immigration

He’s a US soldier deployed on the Mexico border. He’s also an illegal Chinese immigrant

  • The soldier says he avoids US customs and border officers out of fear they will learn his status as an undocumented migrant
  • He is one of thousands of undocumented immigrants who applied to the US military on the understanding they would be naturalised
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2018, 5:24am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2018, 9:31pm

The US soldier was ready to deploy across the world at a moment’s notice, but when the orders came down weeks ago to mobilise on the southern border, it sparked a flash of concern.

He knew the mission was in support of border agents combing harsh borderland terrain to arrest anyone unlawfully in the country. People like him.

“I’m an illegal immigrant,” the Chinese-born soldier said by phone.

His duties do not often intersect with Customs and Border Protection agents, he said, but he has avoided them out of fear they will learn one of 5,400 troops in their orbit is in violation of immigration law.

That has placed him in the unusual situation of serving a nation that has not recognised him as a citizen, despite promises from the Pentagon to quickly naturalise skilled immigrants in exchange for service, as it had done for thousands of troops since 2009.

The Washington Post is withholding the soldier’s name and certain details, including his duty location, because he fears discipline for speaking to the press.

The soldier, now in his late 20s, began his path to the United States nearly a decade ago after high school.

His home in southeastern China is beautiful, he said, the region dotted with lakes and towering limestone karst formations. But it is also stifling. He felt trapped by family expectations, and a passion for engineering could only take him so far there.

There were better opportunities in America, he believed.

He joined his sister in California on a student visa and enrolled in college. The military seemed like a place to further his career, he said, and the Pentagon’s immigrant recruitment programme guaranteed something more than job security: “A sense of pride,” he said.

His enlistment would also harness something that makes him especially valuable to the military – his voice. He speaks several dialects, including Mandarin, which is among several languages the Pentagon has deemed strategically vital but in short supply among US-born troops.

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And as the Pentagon has increasingly worried about China’s military ambitions, it seemed like the perfect time, then, for the Chinese-born soldier to offer his skills. He was expected to begin training in August 2016, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

That is about when everything started to go very wrong. The Pentagon programme he enlisted through, Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, was beginning its year-long implosion.

Immigrant recruits commonly timed their enlistments so their student and visitor visas could carry them through with enough time to provide legal protection. But the Pentagon’s security screening was so slow that “some number of 4,300 MAVNI applicants” had fallen out of lawful status as they waited, according to an internal agency memo dated September 30, 2016.

The agency later said that the number crested at 1,000 recruits. Those included the Chinese soldier, whose enlistment date slid back amid the chaos. Many recruits waited months, or years, to move forward.

The Chinese soldier did not have even weeks. In September 2016, the Pentagon introduced vastly more complicated security checks amid fears of foreign infiltrators.

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Weeks later, in October, his legal status expired, making him an unlawful immigrant.

He picked up fares as a Lyft driver while waiting for his enlistment to move forward, he said, and took pains to avoid the border when he ventured to San Diego, California. He wouldn’t risk flying, either.

In August 2017, after nine gruelling months under threat of deportation, he was granted deferred action by the Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), but that already expired, he said, putting him back into the crosshairs of immigration enforcement.

The MAVNI programme was shuttered last fall, crushed by its own bureaucratic inertia, and remaining applicants in the system trickled through enlistment. Military naturalisations plummeted just as the Chinese soldier readied for training.

USCIS closed its offices at three basic training sites in January 2018, BuzzFeed reported, despite laws that mandate faster naturalisations established after a US soldier from Trinidad was killed in Iraq on his way to gather paperwork for his citizenship. A Pentagon spokeswoman did not immediately return comment on how and why immigrant troops may arrive at their units without being naturalised.

Soon after the January closures, the Chinese soldier made it to basic training.

His drill sergeants told him he would not be naturalised during basic training in Missouri, he said.

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He then moved to advanced training in Texas. He said he was told the base was not set up for naturalisations, either.

And then, soon after he arrived at his home station, he was mobilised for the border deployment.

In China, his parents have worried about his status and his safety after seeing images of Central American migrants fleeing tear gas. He feels sympathetic to fellow immigrants, he said, who like him left their home to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

“At the same time,” he said, “a massive group rushing in wasn’t the best way to do so, I think.”

At his new unit, paperwork for his naturalisation was underway, he said, but the border deployment has paused the process while he is gone.

Troops on the border were expected to leave by December 15. But on Tuesday, the Pentagon extended forces there to the end of January, leaving him more time to ponder the risks of interacting with federal agents there.

He has kept busy in his down time by working out, reading and studying for certification tests, he said.

Sometimes he will catch a sunset of brilliant orange and pink.

It’s wondrous out there, he said, in the big, beautiful country not quite his home.