WASHINGTON — “Dreamers” – the young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and now face deportation – have valuable skills and should be eligible to enlist in military service, three retired military officials said in a press conference call Wednesday.
Retired Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, who serves as a co-chair for Veterans for New Americans, said the military would benefit “dramatically” if more “dreamers” were allowed to enlist, and that the U.S. is not tapping into a valuable resource as enlistment numbers drop.
In the teleconference call, hosted by the National Immigration Forum, the former senior officers emphasized the importance of finding a solution to immigration reform that would protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — an Obama-era initiative that allows “dreamers” to avoid deportation and apply for work permits. President Donald Trump has set a March 5 deadline for the program to expire.
Stock and the other retired officers urged lawmakers to protect “dreamers” and allow the country to take advantage of their skills.
In November 2017, service members across all branches of the military numbered 1.35 million, an increase of 0.02 million from the year before. The increase in personnel and demand for more recruits, in combination with lowering enlistment numbers, has resulted in the military accepting more recruits from the lowest category of applicants.
The army alone recruited 69,000 active-duty soldiers in 2017, with 1.9 percent of those recruits coming from the lowest qualifying category. In 2016, only 0.6 percent of recruits were from the same group.
Reasons for potential recruits being placed in a lower category vary – from low test scores to previous usage of drugs like marijuana, among others – and the Pentagon mandates that no more than four percent of all recruits can come from the lowest category.
Low unemployment rates have made military recruitment more difficult, Stock said in the call. Even so, the army plans to recruit 80,000 soldiers in 2018.
Stock said “dreamers” are a highly qualified and untapped pool of potential recruits. They have minimum education standards, have been fully vetted by the Department of Homeland Security, and have undergone a health check as part of their application to receive protected status. Many also have added language and cultural skills which would benefit the military, she said.
In the past, some DACA recipients have been able to enlist in the military through a program called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI. The program, which Stock founded, seeks out immigrants with language and health care skills and puts them on a fast-track path to citizenship in exchange for military service.
Since 2009, more than 10,400 immigrant recruits – not all dreamers ESTIMATE ON IF ANY ARE DREAMERS AND HOW MANY IF SO — have earned their citizenship through the program. In 2016, a new regulation was added that required recruits to maintain their immigrant status to ship to basic training, and then be eligible to apply for citizenship.
But with Trump’s threat to end DACA, applicants to MAVNI may lose that status in the first place. There is currently an estimated backlog of 1,000 applicants who have signed enlistment contracts but not been called to basic training. They may face deportation if their status expires, meaning they not only would not be able to serve in the military, but would lose their path to citizenship as well.
Trump recently rejected an emerging bipartisan compromise on immigration reform two weeks ago, but now has proposed a 12-year path to citizenship for “dreamers” in return for a border wall and shutting down several programs that encouraged immigration.
In his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, Trump outlined a four-pronged immigration plan and urged lawmakers to bring the U.S. immigration system “into the 21st century.”
“These four pillars represent a down-the-middle compromise and one that will create a safe, modern, and lawful immigration system,” Trump said in the speech. “So, let’s come together, put politics aside, and finally get the job done.”
Democratic lawmakers have opposed proposals put forward by Republicans and Trump, calling them “anti-immigrant” and too restrictive. Negotiations have all but stalled in the Senate, and Trump’s proposal is not expected to make it through the House.
Stock and the other former senior officers said they were heartened by Trump’s reference to “dreamers” in the speech – the president said “all Americans are dreamers” — but not with his language toward immigrants.
“Every day without a solution hurts hundreds of thousands of young people,” said retired Lt. Col. Scott Cooper, the director of Veterans for American Ideals. “‘Dreamers’ by nature are talented, hardworking persons. Deporting them would be nothing less than cruel.”