President Barack Obama’s administration may allow military enlistment by thousands of immigrants living in the country illegally, a top U.S. Department of Defense official said Monday.
Jessica L. Wright, the department’s acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness, described the immigrants, known as DREAMers, as “some of the best and brightest in America that we could capitalize on.”
Wright said the decision would come by summer’s end and involved the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the White House.
Her comments came at a Chicago hearing held by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), chair of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, who wants the Obama administration to open the military to immigrants eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and provide them a path to citizenship. DACA, a program set up by the administration in 2012, has provided work papers and deportation reprieves to hundreds of thousands of youths.
Federal law limits military enlistment to U.S. nationals and legal permanent residents but allows exceptions if “vital to the national interest.” In 2008, President George W. Bush’s administration made exceptions for immigrant enlistees with certain language and health-care skills.
Durbin held the hearing at Phoenix Military Academy, a public high school on Chicago’s West Side and the site of a large Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. The witnesses included uniformed Phoenix students living in the country illegally.
One of them, Jessica Calderón, a junior at the school, said her mother sent her to the United States from Mexico at age 3. “I was raised in America and really consider myself to be a citizen even though some numbers and papers do not say so,” Calderón said.
Calderón said her dream is to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and, from there, become an Army officer. “The only thing that holds me back from accomplishing my goals is my status as an undocumented immigrant,” she said.
Durbin said it was time for the United States to open the military to Calderón and other young unauthorized immigrants who would benefit from stalled legislation known as the DREAM Act.
“The question is this,” Durbin said. “Will America be a stronger country if we deport our DREAMers to countries they barely remember or if we allow them to contribute more fully to the country whose flag they’ve pledged allegiance to every day they’ve been in school?”
Durbin pointed to the military’s history. “Back in World War II, when the nation was divided by race, even much worse than it is today, President Roosevelt decided to end racial discrimination in the recruitment of men and women into the military,” the senator said. “So, in a way, the military has been a leader in America as we’ve evolved on issues like race.”
But the idea of opening the armed services to these unauthorized immigrants — and providing them a path to citizenship — is drawing fire from two directions.
Outside the hearing, a dozen peace activists chanted through a megaphone and spoke to reporters. “We oppose strongly this idea of Durbin’s that undocumented young people should be cannon fodder for the U.S. military in these endless wars,” Laura Guerra of Chicago said.
Durbin’s push is also stirring up some conservatives. Last week a House Republican leader indicated he would block a similar proposal.
Daniel Horowitz, policy director of a Tea Party campaign-funding group called the Madison Project, said allowing illegal immigrants to enlist would send the wrong message. “Join the military and you get legal status,” he said.
Horowitz also warned of what he called a military security threat. “We certainly don’t want to invite in bad actors who have very shady backgrounds, no documentation,” he said.
But Calderón, the high-school student born in Mexico, assured the audience at the hearing that she has only one loyalty. “I pledge allegiance to this nation every day and I wouldn’t feel comfortable defending any other nation but America,” she testified. “I will never stop working as hard as I can until I get to serve this nation.”