Among those who watched the smoke rise from the World Trade Center into a perfect blue sky on 9/11 were an Army Reserve officer on the cliffs at West Point and a 7-year-old undocumented immigrant on the street in Queens.
The officer was Maj. Margaret Stock, and in the days afterward she decided that the attacks might have been prevented if the military had not been so lacking in personnel fluent in foreign languages such as those spoken by the plotters.
Stock set about creating the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which offered expedited citizenship to immigrants who speak languages of particular importance in terms of national security. The program was also open to physicians, nurses, and dentists who could offset a longtime shortage of medical personnel in the armed services. The overall principle was simple.
“The whole idea of the program was to make sure we have enough people to protect the country,” Stock told The Daily Beast.
The immigrant from Queens was Harminder Saini, whose family had brought him from India to America when he was 6. He was in high school, at the Academy of American Studies, when he discovered he was unable to secure working papers or apply for a driver’s license because he did not have a Social Security number.
“So my parents told me I was undocumented,” Saini would recall. “I didn’t have the same stuff Americans have.”
But in June 2012, the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allowed “DREAMers” who arrived in America as minors to secure a work permit and at least temporary protection from deportation. Saini was enrolled as a history major at Hunter College when his mother heard on television that DREAMers had become eligible to apply to Stock’s MAVNI as a way to get citizenship.
Saini went to an Army recruiting station in Queens. The qualifying languages included his native Punjabi, and he was given a proficiency exam.
“Obviously, I passed that,” he later told The Daily Beast.
On Feb. 23, 2016, he enlisted. He signed a standard DD Form 4/1 enlistment contract. He took the standard oath:
“I, Harminder Saini, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
A photo from his enlistment ceremony shows him standing soldier tall and proud before an array of flags of the armed services.
“My recruiter taught me,” he would report.
Saini was slated to ship out to basic training once he passed a background check, so he saw no sense in continuing to pay college tuition. He left Hunter and began watching documentaries about the military. He gleaned a reading list from an interview in which Defense Secretary James Mattis recommended a number of books for leaders.
“I’ve looked into Mattis,” Saini later said. “I’ve heard a lot of good stuff about him.”
Saini also concentrated on getting in top physical shape for his life in the Army.
“Going to the gym, staying fit, weightlifting, keep up my running,” Saini would remember.
But the Army had tripled the number of background checks for MAVNI candidates without providing adequate personnel to conduct them.
“They don’t have anybody to do the background checks,” Stock told The Daily Beast.
As a result, Saini and some 350 fellow DREAMer MAVNI candidates waited month after month after month. Saini decided to re-enroll in Hunter College this semester, having spent nearly 20 months with his life on hold. He reached his 23rd year ever prepared to ship out to basic training.
“If they want me to ship out tomorrow, I’ll be ready,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s kind of taken over my life.”
Other DREAMer MAVNI candidates who have been put on hold include a 20-year-old immigrant from the Philippines who asked The Daily Beast to identify him only by his first name, John. He arrived in America when he was 10, and during his elementary school years his mother worked in a restaurant near a Marine Corps recruiting station.
“I’d always seem them in their dress blues and combat uniforms,” John would recall.
He imagined someday being one of them.
“It’s always been like a dream of mine," he later said. “Thinking about your future, as you grow up, it kind of starts to become a reality.”
He seemed to be on his way when Marine Corps recruiters visited his high school. He accepted a challenge to do 30 pull-ups and was invited to participate in cross-fit training. He was ready to join up just to realize his childhood dream.
‘I said, ‘OK, what do you guys need?’” he recalls.
The recruiters said all that was required was a high school transcript, a birth certificate, a passport, and a Social Security number.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll bring them to you tomorrow because my mom has them,’” he recalled.
Upon returning home, he asked his mother on the assumption that she had the necessary papers. She had to tell him otherwise.
“That’s when I knew I was undocumented,” he remembered. “My dream of serving the country was kind of ruined.”
He graduated high school and began studying nursing at a local community college.
“I was kind of like your average American looking for work,” he would remember.
His dreams of the military seemed impossible, but at least he became a DREAMer with DACA.
“I could finally work legally,” he later said.
He got a job at a Japanese supermarket, where a co-worker told him that the Army was taking immigrants with a work permit.
“It’s not the Corps, but it’s the Army, right?” he would note.
He called a recruiter, who invited him to come into the station the next day. He learned about MAVNI and passed a proficiency test for his native Tagalog. He also took a physical fitness test, scoring a remarkable 276 out of a maximum 300.
“They are like, ‘This guy has potential,’” he would recall.
He explained to them that he had wrestled in high school and was studying Brazilian jiu jitsu.
“They’re like, 'You’re going to kick ass,’” he remembered.
In January 2016, he enlisted and began his own seemingly interminable wait. He continued to attend physical training and the recruiters presented him with a Future Soldier Leader Recognition Award.
“For exceptional performance, dedication to duty, while serving as a future soldier leader,” it read in part. “His drive, motivation, exemplary leadership, dedication and commitment as a future soldier to the Army mission and values reflects great credit upon him.”
He drew continued inspiration from one of his favorite writers, Joseph Campbell.
“He said a hero is somebody who takes part in something greater than himself,” John said. “I feel that being part of the military is being part of something bigger than myself. I just wish they gave us a chance, just one chance.”
He, like Saini, remained ever prepared.
“If Uncle Sam wants me at basic training, I’ll be on the next plane,” he told The Daily Beast.
Instead, John and Saini and the hundreds of waiting MAVNI DREAMers learned on Tuesday that the president to whom they were all sworn to obey had revoked DACA. The termination was to take effect in six months, at which time the MAVNI DREAMers who were not yet in basic training and on the way to naturalization would be in jeopardy of being deported from the country they had sworn to protect.
At least President Trump suggested that Congress replace DACA before March. And there was cause for hope when Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham held a joint press conference in which they voiced bipartisan support for letting the DREAMers continue to pursue their dreams. Both seemed inspired by the spirit of these young strivers.
“This may be what we need in Congress to get our act together, REAL PEOPLE,” Graham said. “This is a defining moment.”
But Congress also has characters such Rep. Paul Gosar, a former “Arizona Dentist of the Year” who has proposed legislation barring what he calls “DACA aliens” from serving in the military. Gosar himself has never served, though the armed services have long suffered a shortage of dentists, as MANVI seeks to address.
“I agree with @POTUS that it’s time to get rid of #DACA!” Gosar tweeted on Tuesday, making sure to append a DDS to his name.
But the hope remains that REAL PEOPLE such as John and Saini will indeed inspire Congress to rise a above its differences.
Out in Southern California, where John continues his nursing training pending his long-awaited orders to ship out, he had a message for all those who oppose DACA.
“I just wish that you guys would just give us a chance to pay back my debt to the county,” he said.
He noted that he had three uncles who are lifers in the Navy. He himself hopes to make a career in the Army and become an officer.
“Just being an officer, climb up the ranks,” he said. “Share my knowledge with the junior officers, inspire all the incoming soldiers.”
He would teach the soldiers much the same principle that Graham hoped Congress will finally embrace.
“Even though we may have differences, we are more like each other,” John said.
This aspiring soldier, who will turn all of 21 later this month, added with precocious wisdom such as eludes too many of our leaders.
“That likeness is actually powerful,” he said,
He recalled that his father compared the American dream to the mustard seed of scripture.
“My dad always told me that the United States is kind of like a mustard seed that was planted in our hearts,” John said. “If you’re familiar with the mustard seed parable in the Bible, that it’s just like a little seed, but it’s grown into a forest.”
He went on, “That’s kind of like how I describe my love for the United States. The American dream of serving was kind of like a small seed planted in me that grew…to now be willing to die for the country.”
As Saini continued his own wait in New York, staying fit and reading from the Mattis book list, he watched the Durbin and Graham press conference. He came away more hopeful than he might have been.
“Who knows what’s going to happen?” he said. “It’s like 50/50, can they get it done?”
He also spoke of someday becoming an officer, but for now he had a prime ambition.
“All I want to do is serve,” he said. “Do my part to give back to this country because it allowed me to stay here.”
Sixteen years this month after the officer at West Point and the little immigrant boy in Queens watched smoke rise from the World Trade Center, Stock is now retired from the Army. But she stays busy on Facebook assisting Saini and John and the DREAMers who joined the program she conceived to help make America safe and are now in some danger of being deported.
“She helps us out,” Saini said.
Saini joined John in speaking of the power that comes from connecting with others despite seeming differences, be it within the military or between the military and other cultures with other languages. Here was the true greatness of America, best symbolized as neither a tower nor a wall.
“It’s like a bridge,” Saini said.
Hey, maybe these magnificent young DREAMers will manage to plant a mustard seed in the heart of Congress, if it proves to have one.