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Members of the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade practice   during the combined Lithuanian-U.S. training exercise at the Gaiziunai Training Area some 110 kms (69 miles) west of the capital Vilnius Lithuania, Tuesday, July 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

He joined the Army to become an American. Now he's at risk of being deported.


Zedong Yi left everything he knew at 18 years old to pursue the American dream.

Raised in China by a single mother, he grew up admiring the freedom and culture of the U.S.

"I always [had], you could say, [the] American Dream, because, you know, the culture and everything, the freedom and everything in the United States is quite different from China," Zedong told me in an interview.

Approximately four years ago, Zedong thought his dream had finally come true when he was accepted to Arizona State University. As he was nearing graduation nearly a year and a half ago, he met a fellow Chinese national in a U.S. Army uniform. That's when he discovered MAVNI (Military Accessions Vital National Interest), a special program created by the Department of Defense which allows immigrants with special skills, like languages and medicine, to earn their citizenship through military service.

"This is a place that I love ... so I've decided that I will stay here, instead of going back to China," said Zedong. "So joining the Army is one of the reasons, so I can stay here, and I also feel very honored to have the chance to serve in the Army. To protect the nation and protect the freedom I believe in."

Zedong quickly signed up, went sent to medical processing and was sworn in as a member of the armed services. Everything seemed to be working out for him, until he found out the program was suspending program recruitment and screening those who were still being processed. Zedong was only months away from attending basic training, but he and other MAVNI recruits still in processing would have to submit to three background checks before they could be shipped out. The problem is, long wait times between interviews has jeopardized the lives of some of the recruits whose immigration statuses are set to run out, putting them at risk for deportation.

"The Department of Defense is reviewing the "Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest" (MAVNI) pilot program due to potential security risks associated with the program," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Haverstick told me in an email. "The Department of Defense, under then-Secretary [Ash] Carter, suspended the MAVNI program in September 2016."

The final report is classified, but sources on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon told Fox News they were concerned over unaccounted recruits and "foreign infiltration."

That said, the program as a whole has been remarkably successful, with MAVNI recruits often beating their citizen counterparts in several key areas, according to independent analyses. MAVNI even spawned the Army's 2012 Soldier of the Year, Sgt. Saral Shrestha, a native of Nepal. It also produced Olympic athlete Paul Chelimo, who won the silver medal for the men's 5,000 meter run in the 2016 summer games. So far, more than 10,000 recruits have gone through the program, according to the Pentagon.

Zedong is worried that he will not be cleared by the time his visa expires, leaving him at risk of deportation. To make matters worse, many countries, including China, have outlawed their citizens from joining the MAVNI program, putting Zedong at risk of prosecution. He told me he is one of the more fortunate ones, because he currently has a job and legal status, but he said he knows other MAVNI recruits who are suffering financially and are nearing the end of their visas.

"We know this involves real people, who are in limbo while they away resolution," Haverstick told me. "We are in continual contact with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to discuss the status of those in the Delayed Entry Program whose valid immigration status has elapsed."

The Delayed Entry Program, or DEP, is a program in which recruits enlist before being shipped out to basic training.

"Their progress is very slow, so we have no idea what's going on in the Department of Defense," Zedong told me. "So I really hope they can give us a chance to serve this country."

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