WASHINGTON, D.C. — As a decorated World War II veteran, Joseph Medina believes that undocumented immigrants should be given a chance to serve in the military if they want. Why? Because he was once undocumented.
On Wednesday night, in front of a packed crowd in the “Fast4Families” tent where immigration activists have convened to fast and pray for the past 31 days in the nation’s capitol, Medina said that he hoped that undocumented immigrants could one day be as thrilled to become Americans as he has been in his long life.
Surrounded by his son and two undocumented youth activists, the 99-year-old World War II veteran — who served under Gen. Douglas McArthur in the Pacific Theater — said that he was hopeful about the prospects of immigration reform and that his immigrant-turned-citizen background makes him sympathetic towards undocumented immigrants.
Medina was orphaned in Mexico at nine-months-old and promptly adopted by his maternal aunt. When he was five years old, the family moved to Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, then a small town of 30 families. As a meat packer in his mid-20s, Medina was drafted into the Army in 1944. He only became aware of his undocumented status when he was nearly done with basic training.
His son Michael spoke for him, “His officers came over to say, ‘Joe, we don’t have any record of you being legally in this country.’ Back then it was a little easier to get your legalization, I believe. They sent him to Canada.’ [My father] was in the state of Washington and they said, ‘cross the border and when you come back, use your military ID card,’ and that’s how he got his papers.”
“We wish it were that easy today,” Michael continued. “We’re here with a couple of young people who would like to serve this country and have a similar story. They also came to this country when they were five-years-old. They’re Americans, they feel like Americans, but now they can’t join the military. We’re supportive of them joining the military. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re here to help them on, encourage them, support them, we’re hopeful that things will change.
The elder Medina also told ThinkProgress that he would like Congress to help all kinds of undocumented immigrants because he “wish[es] everybody would believe the same thing” especially since he’s “thrilled to be an American.”
Joseph is not the only undocumented immigrant who learned about his status at a later age. Scores of DREAMers, or undocumented youths brought to the country by their parents, often have no knowledge that they’re undocumented until they apply for college or driver’s licenses. That was the case with Cristian Avila, a DREAMer with Mi Familia Vota who fasted for 22 days and spoke at the same event. Avila said that one of the few days in his life that he cried was when his mom “fell to her knees” and profusely apologized when he was rejected for a scholarship “not because of bad grades, but because I was missing nine numbers” on a Social Security card.
Joseph is far from being the only undocumented member of the military. And more than 65,000 immigrants currently make up five percent of the military. But strict policies prevent undocumented youths who wish to serve from enlisting.
Military guidelines are tightening in each of the various branches to make it difficult for anyone with undocumented dependents to enlist: The Department of Defense doesn’t have defined enlistment policies. The Navy changed its policies in 2009 to require applicants to prove that their dependents are legal and the Marine Corps followed by changing its policies in 2011. The Army simply doesn’t allow applicants with undocumented dependents to enlist.
While the Pentagon is reviewing policies, the Obama administration sent out a memo in November to halt the deportation of non-criminal immigrant family members of former and active duty military members. That memo would also grant individuals the ability to adjust to permanent legal status.