Foreign-born recruits flee the country to avoid deportation


Alex Horton | Washington Post

Frustrated by delayed promises from the U.S. military for citizenship, and in fear of the Islamic State if he were deported back to Iraq, Ranj Rafeeq has given up the American Dream for a Canadian one.

Rafeeq was eager as a teenager to translate for U.S. troops stationed in his home town of Kirkuk in 2005. He immigrated to Portland, Oregon, to study seven years later, hoping to don an Army uniform after earning his graduate degree in civil engineering.

He signed an enlistment contract in January 2016, with a training date set in September.

“I loved American soldiers. It was my dream to be a part of them,” Rafeeq, now 29, told The Washington Post.

But Rafeeq’s plans to serve imploded as the Pentagon’s program, designed to leverage medical and language skills of immigrants in exchange for fast-tracked citizenship, was log-jammed with additional security measures for recruits last fall, stressing an already overburdened screening process.

The program was put on hold in September 2016 – just as he was scheduled to report for training – sparking fear in Rafeeq and across the recruit population that their path to citizenship would abruptly end.

Then he received a letter from Kurdish officials warning of sweeps targeting Kurds for deportation and watched as news reports of the program’s struggles mounted.

Rafeeq’s student visa was set to expire on Aug. 1. He faced a decision: wait for the Pentagon’s bureaucracy to untangle itself as the Trump administration seeks to expand deportation powers, or flee.

He chose to flee. On June 11, Rafeeq went to Vancouver to apply for asylum in Canada. His biggest fear with deportation is the chance that Islamic State militants would prize his capture if they uncovered his attempt to enlist.

“I can’t go back to Kirkuk,” he said. “They would kill me.”

Waiting to train

On June 26, The Post first reported on the Defense Department’s internal recommendations to shutter the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, which has naturalized 10,400 troops since 2009, and to cancel the contracts of 1,800 of recruits like Rafeeq who are waiting to train.

About 1,000 of those recruits have waited so long that they have fallen out of legal immigration status. An internal Defense Department memo obtained by The Post acknowledges that canceling these contracts would expose the recruits to deportation. In response, lawmakers urged Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to honor the contracts of those recruits.

The recruits, who have already sworn allegiance to the United States in their oaths of enlistment, could potentially face harsh interrogations or jail time if they are deported to countries such as China or Russia, said Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration.

“These are not rule of law societies, and if they want to put pressure on [recruits], they will,” Malinowski told The Post.

Malinowski said public announcements and photos of enlistments on social media could easily be exploited by adversarial intelligence agencies, in a potential propaganda victory attacking not just the United States but its most revered institution – the military.

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