Soldiers walk in line one by one into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Scott Ball.
Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) is a limited program that allows non-citizens to join the U.S. armed forces, with an opportunity for early citizenship. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

I was 17 years old when I came to the United States from India to attend college at Trinity University in 2011.

I had a fairly unusual upbringing because of my dad’s job as an Indian diplomat. I traveled regularly and grew up in Germany, Kuwait, and India. I moved every three years or so, and had to say goodbye to friends I knew I would probably never see again. The upside of this was getting to experience different cultures and interact with peers from diverse backgrounds.

Because of this nomadic lifestyle, I never found a place I could truly call home until I came to San Antonio, the city I have lived in the longest over my lifetime – about six years.

I had some wonderful experiences through college, both academic and social. I performed undergraduate research under a couple of great professors every summer, joined a fraternity and a professional organization for engineers. I found myself with a degree of autonomy I had never had before, not just in the sense that I didn’t have my parents hovering over me; I also had the freedom to do things and pursue opportunities I would not have been able to in India.

I made lifelong friends, and during my senior year I met a girl who has been awesome enough to keep me around to this day. These are the things for which I am most grateful. San Antonio was a great setting for my growth, and I have seen the city itself grow since 2011.

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering science, with minors in mathematics, physics, and business administration in May 2015. A few months later, I found out about the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), a limited program that allows non-citizens to join the U.S. armed forces, with an opportunity for early citizenship. I contacted a recruiter, went through the academic, physical, and language tests to meet the program requirements and enlisted as an active-duty recruit in the U.S. Army on Feb. 4, 2016. Placed in the Delayed Entry Program, I was told I would ship out to basic training and enter active duty in September 2016 after background checks that would take about six months.

I enlisted for three reasons:

  • I saw it as my duty to repay the U.S., the country that had welcomed me so warmly. I couldn’t think of a better way to do this than serving in the U.S. military.
  • I wanted to forge a career in the private aerospace sector, as space tourism and asteroid mining have appealed to me since I was a child. In college, I learned one has to be a U.S. citizen and have security clearance to work as an engineer for organizations in this sector and that military service is viewed as favorable.
  • As an Indian citizen, with the current backlog, it would have taken me a couple of decades to get legal permanent resident status if I had gone the H-1B route and gotten an employer to sponsor me. With the MAVNI program I would have been naturalized at the end of basic training.

But I didn’t ship to basic training in 2016 – or 2017. My ship date was postponed three times because of extra vetting to which many MAVNI recruits became subject.

Finally on June 11, 2018, my recruiting station’s center leader informed me that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) had found “substantial derogatory information” in my background and that I was not eligible for continued service. The (DOD) did not tell him what this information was. When I contacted the person in charge of the Army’s MAVNI program at Fort Knox, he said he did not know what the derogatory information was and informed me that there was no appeal process.

I can only hope this is some kind of mixup, because I cannot imagine what this information could be. I believe I have the right to at least know why I am being discharged after living in limbo for two-and-a-half years, not being authorized to work legally, not knowing what would happen with my immigration status, and now not knowing if I will be deported from the country I love and have signed up to serve. I have filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Defense Department’s Consolidated Adjudication Facility and the Army Intelligence & Security Command seeking the release of my background reports, but have not yet received a response.

I’m not sure what my path forward is; I sacrificed some of my immigration options when I enlisted through MAVNI. I’m trying to find paths that would allow me to stay here legally. The only other option would be to leave the country and probably never be able to return.