Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report
WASHINGTON — While the U.S. government has announced efforts to prevent or decrease the flow of Central American asylum-seekers, some migrants find themselves applying for protection, even though they had not planned to do so.
Jason Ma came to the United States from China in 2011 under a student visa. Despite his parents' “stable jobs and some savings,” they still had difficulty affording all of his expenses in U.S. After graduation, Ma decided to stay in the United States.
“I majored in statistics — both my bachelor's and master's — and I did both my degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign,” he told VOA.
He qualified for the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program (MAVNI), launched in 2009 to bring immigrants with medical or language skills into the U.S. armed services, and enlisted in 2016 before the program was shut down that year.
Though Ma is officially enlisted, he is still waiting to leave for basic training. In October 2017, citing national security concerns, the U.S. government retroactively required background checks on all MAVNI applicants, including those currently serving or waiting for basic training.
Ma found out in March that he also had to apply for asylum.
A U.S. military data breach between July 2017 and January 2018 released hundreds of immigrant recruits’ sensitive information. Some have quickly filed for asylum since they suddenly face potentially life-threatening situations if they were to return to their countries after serving in the U.S. military.
VOA has learned that more than 4,000 recruits’ information was compromised, among them 1,087 Chinese and 82 Russian immigrant soldiers. Ma recently found out his name was on the list.
To Darin Johnson, a professor at Howard University School of Law, the breach puts participants and their families in vulnerable situations.
"It subjects MAVNI recruits, who weren't necessarily subject to persecution back home, and now opens up the door for them, as well," he said.
Johnson, a former assistant general counsel to the Army Secretariat, said the U.S. is engaged in a range of Special Forces operations around the world, “often in many places where you do have very repressive regimes. So, I think it's important for us to think about the danger to the MAVNI recruits themselves."
According to Chinese criminal law, those found colluding “with a foreign State to endanger the sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of the People's Republic of China shall be sentenced to life imprisonment or fixed-term imprisonment of not less than 10 years.”
Falling out of status
The MAVNI program allowed foreign-born recruits to earn a fast-track path to U.S. citizenship. Legal reasons are involved, as soldiers could be deployed to their original country. If they're not U.S. citizens, they could be subjected to that country's laws.
Citizenship through the military can be taken away if a person does not serve honorably for five years.
In the meantime, immigrant recruits are told to maintain their visa status until a shipping date.
But the retroactive background checks created a backlog. Those who are still enlisted through the program have been waiting more than two years to be vetted.
Without basic training, Ma’s expedited naturalization process does not move forward.
Though Ma still has legal status, he will run out of options to maintain his immigration status. At the end of 2017, the status of his Optional Practical Training — temporary employment directly related to an F-1 student's major area of study — had expired. He is now in danger of deportation to China.
Army is investigating
In a request for comment, the U.S. Army said officials are “investigating the incident [data breach]. But at this time, it does not believe the information was widely distributed.”
Margaret Stock, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who created the MAVNI program in 2008, said the Department of Defense is “not giving accurate information to the press.”
“There were at least four data breaches that I can document,” she told VOA. Some people still do not know their information is “out there.”
Air Force Lt. Col. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokesperson, told VOA “the investigation ultimately determined the information was not widely distributed.”
But VOA saw three official U.S. government letters addressed to different recruits that said, “Some personal data maintained by the Department of Defense was released via email to individuals outside the Department’s network.”
The letter also states that on January 31, U.S. officials “began to take action to contain the loss in accordance to PII [Personally Identifiable Information] breach procedures. … However, on March 6, the Command was made aware that this PII breach may be more extensive than originally estimated, so the Command is now re-investigating, and will continue to monitor this problem.”
Stock, who is also an immigration lawyer, is assisting some people with their asylum cases and said hundreds of MAVNI soldiers started getting letters around mid-April.
Applying for asylum
Though Ma still has a contract with the Army, he is currently preparing to submit his asylum application.
“I think joining the military is an honorable and great way to give back to this great nation,” he said.
He now faces a new immigration process but said he is still planning to move forward with his enlistment.
“I love this country, for sure, and the day that I joined the U.S. military is one of the proudest days in my life so far,” he said.