WASHINGTON -- A group of young undocumented immigrants ramped up a push this week for the ability to join the military, with about 20 visiting recruiting offices on Thursday to ask about enlistment.
Undocumented immigrants are barred from enlisting. But these young people all came to the United States as children and are now trying to gain legal status. Under a recent directive called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals they are allowed to work -- now they want President Barack Obama to allow that work to be in the military.
The first groups visited recruiting offices in New York and Hanford, Calif., on Thursday, and others will do the same in other cities in the coming weeks, organized by advocacy groups Dream Action Coalition and Let Us Serve.
"For myself, I live in New York City and after 9/11, it was very personal for me," said César Vargas, 28, executive director of the Dream Action Coalition and one of the undocumented immigrants who visited the New York recruiting office. "For me, it was really about serving my country and to really send a message to a lot of people who oppose the Dream Act or immigration, for them to see who we are, that we are as American as they are."
The Obama administration announced its deferred action program last June and has now accepted more than 150,000 undocumented young people. Eligibility for the policy roughly aligns with the framework for the Dream Act, a decade-old bill that would allow young undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children -- often called Dreamers -- to become citizens if they met certain criteria.
But the Dream Act has a specific provision for military service while deferred action does not. Dreamers could either go to college or join the military in order to benefit from the Dream Act, but deferred action looks only at college. Although immigrants are eligible for deferred action if they have been honorably discharged from the military, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to join up, meaning the policy would only apply if they had already served.
A number of members of Congress and other leaders, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have spoken in support of allowing immigrants covered by the Dream Act to join the military as part of that bill. Vargas said the groups are hoping some of those same officials will back their effort to allow deferred action recipients to enlist.
Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, explained the agency's policies on immigrant enlistment in an email. "Current law does not permit the services to enlist those who are not U.S. citizens or legal residents, unless the services declare the enlistment of such a person to be 'vital to the national interest," he said. "There has been no change to DoD policy, and it would be inappropriate to speculate with regard to any future changes."
Vargas said he will continue to push the Obama administration and the Defense Department to make the change. He graduated from law school and would like to become a military lawyer.
"There is no legislation required for this action -- the president and the secretary of defense just need to issue one memo," he said. "That's all we need."
Michelle Rodriguez, 26, is also hoping to enlist. She came to the United States from Mexico 21 years ago, and is now earning her bachelor's degree with hopes of attending nursing school. She decided after the Sept. 11 attacks that she wanted to join the military, and her goal is toy become a nurse in the Marines. It would be possible to serve in the military with a U-Visa, she said, but she wants to join as soon as she can.
"It would mean fulfilling one of my dreams. It's one of my dreams to be able to serve," she said. "I think I have what it takes to be a Marine."
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The Template: California Proposition 187 (1994)
California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.
The Worst: Arizona SB 1070
The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. This law has been widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It requires state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there is "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believe was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. But it has generated a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. A federal judge issued a ruling that blocked what critics saw as some of the law's harshest provisions. House: 35-31 (4/12/2011)
Following Arizona's Footsteps: Georgia HB 87
The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17
Verifying Authorized Workers: Pennsylvania HB 1502
This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>
A Spin Off of Arizona: Utah HB 497
Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)
The Most Comprehensive: Florida HB-1C
Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010
The Hot Seat: Alabama HB 56
The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>