Panshu Zhao is a Chinese immigrant and PhD student at Texas A&M. Panshu joined the US army reserves through MAVNI (Military Accessions Vital To National Interest), a program that offers a path to citizenship for immigrants who serve in the US armed forces. He says that for two years he underwent background checks and counterintelligence interviews. He was issued a uniform and began training with his unit. But he was abruptly discharged from the US Army in April.
Panshu says that at least 40 immigrants have been discharged from the army without explanation in recent months. One Brazilian reservist, Lucas Calixto, hasa filed a lawsuit in Washington DC, claiming that he was kicked out of the military without a chance to defend himself. And many other would-be MAVNI participants say they have been stuck “in limbo” for years, waiting for their security clearance to come through.
But some observers say that Panshu’s story is nothing new, and that would-be army recruits are turned down all the time — for health and fitness reasons, or because they simply could not pass the army’s rigorous background check.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Panshu Grew Up in Eastern China But Says He Always Dreamed of Moving to America
Panshu grew up in eastern China. He says his parents always gave him American literature to read, and he loved Hollywood movies. He read about democracy and grew up with a very positive view of America. A Christian, he also grew up reading the bible.
He moved to the US to study geology at Texas A&M. He said the first thing he did when he arrived in Texas was join a church. In 2016, he enlisted in the US army. While waiting for his security clearance to go through, he joined the gym. He was given an army uniform, and allowed to do some training with his unit, although he did not go through basic training.
Zhao says that finding out he was discharged from the US army was “like falling from Heaven to hell.” He told NPR that he was suddenly discharged with no explanation, and no chance to appeal. “Suddenly, they told me I can’t be a soldier anymore without telling me specifically why and even not giving me any chance to appeal for that. That’s not really fair, to be honest with you.”
Panshu also told NPR, “I feel join the army is something I can do. I mean, I have my degree, I have a good degree, but I want to do something more than that. I mean, I want to contribute my energy, my time and my effort into the military to pay back to the community.”
He added, “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. I’m a good scientist no matter what.”
2. Panshu Says He Is Afraid To Go Back To China
Panshu says now that he is no longer in the US military, his immigration status will likely be impacted. Pahnshu told NPR that he is afraid for his safety if he has to go back to China. He and a friend of his at Texas A&M, Deb Tien Wong, have organized a group calling themselves Asian American Soldiers For America. The group delivered letters to President Trump last year and met with several senators and congressmembers.
Panshu says that because of his activity, and his sympathy with the US military, he is afraid of how he might be treated if he returns to China. He told NPR, “I’m pretty sure the Chinese government knows what I did, and that they know my name. So you know, I don’t know what will happen if I go back.”
3. A Brazilian Reservist, Lucas Calixto, Filed a Lawsuit in Washington, D.C. After He Was Discharged From the Military
Calixto is a Brazilian citizen living in Somerville, Massachussetts. He enlisted in the US army in early 2016. He was promoted to private second class and says he was never disciplined or in any kind of trouble. But Calixto says that on June 13, 2018 he was suddenly discharged from the army — with no clear explanation about why, and with no chance to defend himself. The discharge order took effect on July 1. Calixto says that the army’s discharge ordre just said that he was being discharged for “personal security” reasons.
On June 28, Calixto filed a lawsuit against Mark Esper, the Secretary of the Army, with the US District Court for the district of Columbia. His lawsuit claims that the army violated its own regulations by not giving him the chance to defend himself. He also says that the army has violated his right to due process.
Calixto says that he has “served honorably” for two years. He says that, as part of his citizenship application, the military has already verified that he has been serving honorably. He is asking for the court to issue an injunction to reverse his discharge.
4. Other MAVNI Recruits Say They Are Stuck “In Limbo” Waiting for Security Clearance
Military.com spoke to a number of MAVNI recruits who says they have been stuck in limbo waiting for the army to process their security clearances. One man, Specialist Charles Choi, says he’s been waiting for two years for his security clearance.
Choi, originally from South Korea, enlisted in the army reserves through the MAVNI program two years ago. He has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in statistics from Cornell University. But he hasn’t been able to go through basic combat training, because he is still waiting for his security checks to be completed.
Meanwhile, Choi says his visa, which allows him to remain in the US, will expire soon.
“Delays are so long and we have a finite length to our visas and that’s where the real problem comes in,” he said.
Military.com says that about 10,400 troops who have signed up to serve through MAVNI since 2008. They estimate that more than 1,000 now face uncertain futures.
5. The US Army Says It Discharges Recruits Who Don’t Pass Their Security Checks
The US Army has not publicly responded to the cases of Choi, Calixto, or Panshu. But a statement from the army defends itself against generalized criticism of its MAVNI program. The statement stresses that the army is within its rights to discharge any recruit that cannot pass its rigorous security check. But the statement does not explain just why the security process can take up to two years.
The statementsays “Department of Defense and Army policy require all recruits to undergo a suitability review as part of the military accessions process. One aspect of the suitability review is a security screening.”