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They're Undocumented And Want To Join The U.S. Army Before It's Too Late


Joining the U.S. Army is a goal of many young adults, including several hundred who, as children, were brought to this country illegally. The Trump administration is considering eliminating or scaling back two programs that put them on the path to the military. NPR's Richard Gonzales introduces us to two young men, both hoping to make it to basic training before it's too late.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Harminder Saini was 6 years old when his parents brought him to the United States from India. The now 20-year-old college history major grew up in Queens, N.Y.

HARMINDER SAINI: All these times, you know, growing up doing American things, you know, like celebrating Halloween, or going to the park or - it was just things - everything was normal.

GONZALES: Like any American teenager, he hoped to earn some extra cash with his first job. So he asked his parents for his Social Security number. That's when they told him he was in this country illegally, so he didn't have one.

SAINI: It was like, wait, so I'm not American. So it was very frustrating, disappointing and also confusing.

GONZALES: On the other side of the country in Southern California, 20-year-old John Sena had an almost parallel experience. His parents brought him to this country when he was 10 from the Philippines. He grew up near a Marine recruiting center.

JOHN SENA: Ever since I was 12, I saw the Marines in their dress blues, and I thought I always wanted to be a Marine.

GONZALES: But when he tried to enlist, his parents told him he couldn't.

SENA: My mom just kind of broke the silence, said, oh, we're not supposed to be here. We don't have any papers.

GONZALES: Both Harminder Saini and John Sena enrolled in DACA, the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It protected them against deportation and came with a work permit. It also allowed them to enlist in the Army under a program called MAVNI - Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest. MAVNI accepts noncitizens in the health care professions or with foreign language skills and offers a fast track to citizenship after basic training. Saini speaks Punjabi. Sena, a nursing student, speaks Tagalog. They signed up for active duty in early 2016. Here's Saini.

SAINI: It was very exciting. And it was such a great opportunity for me to not just live here but also give back to this country.

GONZALES: But nearly two years after enlisting, Harminder Saini and John Sena are still waiting to ship out to basic training. That's because the Pentagon has frozen MAVNI while deciding its future. Citing security concerns, the Pentagon ordered intensive background checks on all current MAVNI service members and recruits - about 10,000 of them. Such a massive backlog of security checks leaves about 350 DACA recruits in limbo. In the meantime, if they lose their DACA status, they become ineligible for the Army. Margaret Stock is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who created the MAVNI program back in 2008.

MARGARET STOCK: And they're now going to face deportation, even though they signed enlistment contracts and have been waiting patiently all this time and going through all the background checks that were necessary for them to ship out.

GONZALES: President Trump plans to start phasing out the DACA program in March unless Congress steps in. Sena's DACA status expires in October of next year. Saini's status ends a few months later. The possibility of getting shortchanged by two government programs leaves Harminder Saini almost speechless.

SAINI: I don't know what to say about that. It's just - it's very, very frustrating.

GONZALES: Sena and Saini have powerful allies. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that DACA recipients should be allowed to serve and become citizens. Even the current secretary of defense, James Mattis, says he would like to preserve the Pentagon program for immigrants. Pentagon officials note that the Army is struggling to meet its recruiting goals. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.