As Chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the military and intelligence community, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) Monday chaired a subcommittee hearing in Chicago during which he urged that young immigrants who qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) be authorized to enlist in the military.
It has been almost a year since the Senate passed comprehensive immigration legislation on a strong bipartisan vote of 68-32. The Senate bill includes Durbin's DREAM Act and would, among other things, allow Dreamers to enlist in the military. In the last year, the only immigration legislation the House has passed is an amendment to defund DACA and deport Dreamers. The House Republican leadership has announced they will block a vote this week on an amendment that would allow Dreamers to enlist.
If House Republicans continue to block comprehensive immigration reform, the Obama Administration can use its authority to fix some of the problems with the immigration system. The Defense Department can authorize the enlistment of non-citizens when it is “vital to the national interest.” This determination is entirely in the discretion of the Defense Department.
“I again call on the House Republican leadership to bring comprehensive immigration reform legislation to the floor of the House. If Speaker Boehner gives us a vote, I am confident immigration reform will pass the House on a strong bipartisan vote. If the House Republicans refuse to move immigration reform, the Defense Department should use its authority under current law to authorize the enlistment of Dreamers. Enlisting Dreamers is ‘vital to the national interest’ because it would make the Armed Forces more diverse and inclusive, and it would allow the Armed Forces to access a well-qualified, educated, homegrown talent pool,” Durbin said.
Though the Armed Forces is reducing its size, they need to enlist tens of thousands of well-qualified recruits every year to maintain the strongest and most respected military force in the world. The military will face challenges in the future in recruiting qualified young people to serve. According to the Department of Defense, almost 75 percent of the country’s young people today are not qualified for military service, mostly due to weight and medical conditions. While many legal permanent residents currently serve in the military, other immigrants are unable to enlist.
DACA gives a select group of young immigrants temporary legal status in the United States. To be eligible, an individual must have entered the United States as a child; graduated from secondary school, obtained a general equivalency degree, or be currently enrolled in school; and not have a serious criminal record. Individuals must also be thoroughly vetted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Many recipients hold degrees in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) or possess other skills needed for the complex tasks performed by the military. In addition, many participate in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC). So far, more than 550,000 individuals have received DACA, coming out of the shadows to live and work legally in the country they call home.
“Throughout our history, immigrants have proudly served in the United States Armed Forces, fighting – and dying – alongside native-born Americans in defense of their adopted country,” Durbin said. “Since I first introduced the DREAM Act 13 years ago, I’ve met many Dreamers who want nothing more than to give back to the country they love by serving in the Armed Forces. They have the talent, the heart, and the determination to be great service members. These young people deserve the chance to prove themselves in the service of the only country they’ve ever called home.”
Durbin’s hearing was held at Phoenix Military Academy, one of several Chicago Public Schools military academies. With 11,000 cadets, the school district has the largest JROTC program in the country. A number of those cadets are undocumented immigrants who are unable to attend a military academy or join the military following graduation.