US Military Data Breach Prompts
Immigrant Recruits to Apply for US Asylum
May 01, 2019
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
who is also an immigration lawyer, is assisting some people with their
asylum cases and said hundreds of MAVNI soldiers started getting letters
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.