by Cesar Vargas | January 23, 2013
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued new guidelines clarifying that undocumented youth – or DREAMers – who qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) are “lawfully present” in the country. The announcement clarified the debate over whether DREAMers can access driver’s licenses under state laws that require legal presence. In addition to driver’s licenses, however, another clarification is warranted: updating Department of Defense policy to allow undocumented youth with Deferred Action to serve in the armed services.
DACA, which grants a work permit and social security number, currently does not change military enlistment policy as only U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are able to enlist or be commissioned as officers; thus, DREAMers cannot enlist in the armed servicess. However, there is precedent to allow non-citizens to serve in the military. On November 25, 2008, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates signed a memorandum authorizing the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force to implement a new non-citizen recruiting pilot program for the United States Armed Services titled “Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest” (MAVNI). Significantly, the MAVNI program expanded the categories of persons who could lawfully enlist. Utilizing Section 504(b)(2) of the enlistment statute, the secretary of Defense determined that the enlistment of certain high quality legal immigrants without green cards was “vital to the national interest” and authorized the military branches to commence the MAVNI pilot program. The MAVNI program sought to recruit health care professionals and persons who spoke strategic languages.
Under the same authority, the president and secretary of Defense could supplement the DHS Deferred Action policy by directing the service secretaries to allow DREAMers with deferred action to enlist because their enlistment is “vital to the national interest.” If updated, DREAMers who serve honorably under the secretary’s directive would be able to apply for U.S. citizenship immediately. No further legislative action would be require if President Obama promulgates a directive to the Department of Defense, though Congress can step in if it sees the importance of the issue.
Indeed, executing the directive would be straightforward. The secretary of Defense would simply issue a policy memorandum directing the Service Secretaries to authorize the enlistment of undocumented youth with deferred action. Because many DREAMers have already gone through the United States citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), thus obtaining an immigration file, the implementation process for the armed services would not burden the Pentagon with immigration complexities. The DHS process already screens out persons who are unsuitable for military service as a result of having violent criminal violations or are a security risk. Thus, the new policy would guarantee a qualified force of educated new Americans for future careers in the officer corps.
Since 2010, members of Congress from both parties have gone on record with their openness to allow DREAMers into the military. The list of members who have gone on the record includes Senators one might not expect to see. For example, during the 2010 Congressional session, then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Session (R-Ala.) approved of the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants to serve in the military and put themselves on a path to citizenship, calling it a ”fine program.”
Last year, former Rep. David Rivera (R-Fla.), introduced the ARMS Act, a bill that would give DREAMers the opportunity to serve in the military and allow them to pursue the path to U.S. citizenship which is open to any non-citizen serving in the military. Rep. Rivera introduced the bill saying, “if somebody is willing to die for America, then certainly they deserve a chance at life in America”. In addition, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also floated a proposal to provide relief to DREAMers which would have opened military service to DREAMers. Though Rubio’s concept would have excluded a pathway to citizenship for the majority of DREAMers who would have been granted relief from his proposal, those wishing to serve in the military would have been eligible to apply for citizenship just as any other service member would.
A decision to allow DREAMers to serve our nation will be met with widespread support around the country as it will enable thousands of young patriots who yearn to serve and pursue a military career. Dreamers from across the country are gearing up, sharing their stories at www.LetUsServe.org, and ready to take their case to the country to request that the Department of Defense update DOD policy to make service a reality.