The US armed services won’t be accepting transgender recruits until January at the earliest now that Defense Secretary James Mattis has approved a six-month delay. A program for immigrant recruits is also on hold due to security concerns.
The Obama administration officially lifted a ban on transgender soldiers in July of 2016, and set a one-year deadline for service branches to begin admitting trans recruits. The heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have all asked for more time, which Mattis granted on Friday.
“Since becoming the Secretary of Defense, I have emphasized that the Department of Defense must measure each policy decision against one critical standard: will the decision affect the readiness and lethality of the force?” Mattis said in the memo informing the service chiefs of the extension.
The services have until December 1 to provide information on how integrating transgender recruits would affect the readiness and lethality of the US military. The delay “in no way presupposes an outcome,” Mattis said, noting that the Department of Defense will continue to treat all service members “with dignity and respect.”
The decision does not affect those already serving, who may number up to 4,000 among both active duty and the reserves, according to a 2016 Rand Corporation study commissioned by the Pentagon.
Army officials told the AP that there are currently 82 soldiers in various stages of transitioning to their new sex, while the Navy listed 160 sailors. The Marines said a “handful” have come forward to seek medical care involving transition. The Air Force has refused to release any figures.
The Pentagon is also putting the brakes on a program to recruit immigrants with special skills known as Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI), according to an undated memo obtained by the Washington Post and National Public Radio.
Launched in 2008, MAVNI has recruited immigrants with language, medical, and other specialty skills. It allows visa holders, asylees, and refugees to bypass the permanent residency process and become US citizens.
The memo from Mattis cites “the potential threat posed by individuals who may have a higher risk of connections to Foreign Intelligence Services,” and refers to an “elevated” risk of an insider threat, according to NPR.
MAVNI has been frozen pending further review. There are almost 10,000 immigrants in the program, mostly in the Army, according to the memo. About 4,100 troops, already naturalized citizens, may be subject to “enhanced screening” before they can be given security clearances. Another 1,800 recruits awaiting basic training could be given a discharge or have their enlistment contracts canceled. Of those, about 1,000 have had their visas expire and might face deportation, NPR reported.
The program has been “replete with problems to include foreign infiltration, so much so that the Department of Defense is seeking to suspend the program due to those concerns,” Representative Steve Russell (R-Oklahoma) said during a House Armed Services Committee debate on the National Defense Authorization Act last month. “And I can’t really discuss some of that here in this setting, but there are some major issues when it comes to vetting,” he said.
Retired Lieutenant-Colonel Margaret Stock, who created the program and is currently an immigration attorney in Anchorage, Alaska, dismissed the concerns as overblown.
“If you were a bad guy who wanted to infiltrate the Army, you wouldn’t risk the many levels of vetting required in this program,” she told NPR, adding “they’re subjecting this whole entire group of people to this extreme vetting, and it’s not based on any individual suspicion of any of these people. They’ve passed all kinds of security checks already. That in itself is unconstitutional.”
The Pentagon memo acknowledges that there are “significant legal constraints to subjecting this population to enhanced screening without an individualized assessment of cause.”
Two groups of MAVNI recruits have filed lawsuits against the government, one claiming that the Department of Homeland Security failed to process their naturalization applications, and another alleging discrimination against naturalized citizens who were denied security clearances.
Questions about MAVNI first arose in 2016, when officials discovered that some recruits had presented false educational credentials, according to a legal brief from the Department of Justice, which was submitted in one of the lawsuits.