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Cokie and Steven V. Roberts: Broken promises, broken lives

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

As a child in eastern China, Panshu Zhao worshipped the United States. “He read the Bible his parents gave him, watched Hollywood movies and studied the ideals of democracy,” reports the Associated Press. “He jumped at the chance to attend graduate school at Texas A&M University.”

In 2016, Zhao enlisted in a special U.S. Army program that offers a path to citizenship for immigrant recruits with special medical and language skills — from Albanian to Yoruba. He pursued his degree in geography, hit the gym to prepare for boot camp and trained with his reserve unit.

But now, the Trump administration has essentially dismantled the program, discharging recruits like Zhao and ending their dreams of becoming Americans.

“It’s just like you’re dropped from heaven to hell,” Zhao told the AP. “I’m not a national threat. On the contrast, I’m a national merit because people like me with higher education and critical skills, we want to serve this great U.S. Army.”

Trump has consistently, even proudly, proclaimed his hateful attitude toward immigrants, deriding them as “rapists” and “animals” who “infest” and “invade” this nation. He’s advocated barring all Muslims from the country and slashed the number of refugees accepted for resettlement by two-thirds.

But one of his most despicable actions has been to strangle the program that initially welcomed Zhao, called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI. His administration has set such high standards for security clearances that many recruits either fail the test or run out of time, since their eligibility ends if they’re not called up for active duty within two years of enlistment.

Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer who helped create the program and now practices immigration law, says the background checks for MAVNI recruits are much tougher than for job applicants at the White House. “There’s no explanation for this except xenophobia,” Stock told The New York Times.

Xenophobia is definitely one explanation. So is Trump’s relentless determination to ignore facts when he’s stirring up his base with anti-immigrant invective. Zhao is right: The program’s recruits are “national merits,” not threats, and the enhanced security standards imposed by the Trump administration are clearly not justified by reality.

The program has recruited more than 10,000 new soldiers since its inception in 2009. A 2017 report by the Rand Corp., reports the Times, “found that the program’s recruits were generally better educated and better performing than the average enlisted soldier. It also found that there had been no instances of terrorism or espionage connected to an immigrant recruit.”

Trump’s mendacity has real consequences for real people. Alina Kaliuzhna, originally from Ukraine, enrolled in MAVNI with dreams of becoming a nurse and a commissioned officer. But her career plans are now jeopardized by Army screeners who labelled her a security risk.

“You’ve committed your life to a bigger purpose, and anybody who’s willing to do that deserves respect and (to) be treated as human, not as a piece of paper,” Kaliuzhna told CBS.

The threat to young people like Kaliuzhna goes well beyond the loss of a job. To be eligible for MAVNI, recruits have to hold a valid visa — for work, study or travel. But those permits will eventually run out, and without the protection of military service, the recruits could be deported.

An Iranian who joined the program after coming to the U.S. to study engineering told AP that he was proud of “pursuing everything legally and living an honorable life.” The immigrant, who is afraid to give his real name, has been devastated by his discharge.

“It’s terrible because I put my life on the line for this country, but I feel like I’m being treated like trash,” he says. “If I am not eligible to become a U.S. citizen, I am really scared to return to my country.”

This is life in Trump’s America. Even legal immigrants who want to serve the country and live honorable lives are being “treated like trash” by an administration whose policies are both profoundly immoral and totally self-defeating.

As the Defense Department’s own website points out, “Noncitizens have served in the military since the Revolutionary War.” MAVNI was created because it serves the national interest. And it is being jettisoned just at a time when the military is consistently failing to meet its own recruitment goals.

Instead of welcoming and utilizing these recruits, this administration is finding every excuse to break promises, break lives and besmirch the “ideals of democracy” that Panshu Zhao admired so avidly as a child in China.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted stevecokie@gmail.com.

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