WASHINGTON, D.C. — On a chilly Wednesday morning in late October, a group of nine undocumented youths wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with the words #DREAM Army stood in a row, steps away from the Capitol building. Caught between their dreams and reality, the undocumented immigrants, ranging in age between 15 to 27, each told a group of reporters that they want to enlist in the military because of their sense of duty to the country.
Alina Cortes, 22, has been a San Antonio, Texas resident since her parents brought her from Mexico at the age of nine. She wants to be a linguistic officer in the Army and to “give back to the country” after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Cortes said, “I was able to enroll in the Junior ROTC [Reserve Officers Training Corps] program at my college. And it was bittersweet for me because I had come out of my shell as undocumented and my Major told me that you can come [join the ROTC], you can sign in, but you can’t sign up for the actual army.”
Nearby, Lizardo Buleje, 24, similarly feels her pain. He wants to join the military because it’s a family tradition to serve in the military. “It’s been my dream ever since I was a little kid,” Buleje said. “My dream has always been and still continues to be to join the Air Force. One of the challenges is that I graduated with an electrical engineering degree and all of my friends have been able to enlist in the armed forces and I still don’t have that choice, that right to join the armed forces. I’m here fighting for my dreams, my colleagues’ dreams, asking Congress to pass immigration reform which will definitely strengthen the US armed forces and the US.”
As it stands, undocumented immigrants are allowed to join in their school’s JROTC program, which cannot inquire about immigration status in public schools. But because Cortes, Buleje, and the others lack legal status, they are barred from serving in the military. In Chicago alone, officials estimate that at least ten percent of its JROTC population are undocumented youths. But even if these undocumented youths could serve, vertical promotion may be problematic. Some positions requiring security clearances are limited to US citizens, a feat that under the Senate immigration bill, would take 13 years to achieve.
In the past, government officials spoke favorably of introducing a way to allow some undocumented immigrants to serve in the military. And it makes sense why they would want these non-citizens in the military. One study shows that non-citizen enlistees were “far more likely to complete their enlistment obligations successfully than their U.S.-born counterparts.”
In 2006, then-Under Secretary of Defense David Chu supported a military enlistment provision in the DREAM Act, a bill that would grant citizenship to undocumented youths who fulfilled certain qualifications like military enrollment or high school graduation. Earlier this year, another measure that would legalize undocumented immigrants then allow them to serve was proposed. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced an amendment in the Senate immigration reform bill that would permit “registered provisional immigrants who have honorably served in the Armed Forces and meet certain other conditions to become naturalized United States citizens.” And Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) sponsored the Military Enlistment Opportunity Act of 2013, a stand-alone bill, which would legally permit undocumented immigrants to serve.
At a press conference with the DREAMers, Coffman said, “If somebody is willing to lay their life down for their country, I think they deserve citizenship.”