Opinion: Undocumented Immigrants In The U.S. Military? That's Actually Nothing New

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Should the United States military allow young immigrants without legal status to enlist in the military? That question is being considered by the United States Congress and the White House. The Pentagon is examining creating a very limited pathway to citizenship for those who are part of the Dream Act and call themselves “Dreamers.” The Secretary of Defense informed Congress last week that he had taken action to allow for the enlistment of a few young undocumented immigrants. The White House, however, has asked Mr. Hagel to hold off pending the Congressional summer session.

Eligible immigrants would be covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program initiated by President Obama in 2012. This action provides them with deportation deferrals. Recent studies indicate that more than 550,000 young immigrants have already received these deferrals. Individuals would apply under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, which currently allows immigrants with certain temporary visas to enlist. These visas cover doctors or those with other critical medical skills or languages, such as Farsi and Arabic. In return for their service the Department of Defense would offer these new enlistees expedited U.S. citizenship. Some could become American citizens in as little as three months. None of this is new. In fact, the Pentagon has been using a pathway to expedited citizenship for decades to help fill its ranks with eligible young men and women.

They will have paid for that honor with their blood and sweat and tears. The same cannot be said of the vast majority of Americans, who take their citizenship for granted.

— Col. Gilberto Villahermosa

Since its inception the U.S. military has always been a haven for immigrants. Today, African Americans make up 13 percent of the American population but 20 percent of the U.S. military. And the two greatest demographic growth areas for the U.S. military are Hispanics and African-American women. Hispanics number 53 million and constitute 17 percent of the U.S. population and 11.4 percent of the U.S military. And African-American women make up 16 percent of the American female population but outnumber white women in the U.S. Army.

Minorities have always been overrepresented in America’s fighting forces with the wealthy and upper class notably absent. In fact, despite the homage the people of the United States pay to their soldiers, with each passing decade, fewer and fewer Americans are actually willing to serve in its ranks. This is especially true for America’s leaders, who throughout its history, were always well represented in its military ranks. In 1975 some 80 percent of the 535 members of Congress had served in the armed forces. By 2011 that number had plunged to 20 percent. And in 2013, just 19 percent of the U.S. House and Senate had any Active-duty military service on their resume. In the current Congress, 22 percent are military veterans.

During the Second World War things were quite different. More than 16 million men and women, or approximately 12 percent of the entire U.S. population served in the U.S. military. By the height of the Vietnam War, in 1968, the Active Duty population numbered over 3.5 million, or 1.7 percent. Today, the Active Duty military numbers 1.4 million personnel, or approximately 0.5 percent. Even when the Reserve component of 850,000 is added, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population is serving in the U.S. military.

In July 2002 the manpower demands on the U.S. military of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan prompted President George Bush to sign an Executive Order making all non-citizens on Active Duty during the Global War on Terror eligible for immediate American citizenship. Previously, non-citizens were required to serve on active duty for three years before they could apply for citizenship. By September 2003, there were approximately 37,000 active duty soldiers (or about 3 percent) who were not U.S. citizens. In addition, there were another 13,000 non-citizen reservists.

In fact, the first American soldier to die in Iraq was Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez, a U.S. Marine and native of Guatemala who was killed on 21 March 2003. At the time there were 3,000 non-citizens fighting in the ranks of the American military in Iraq. To the great credit of the U.S. Congress, Gutierrez became one of the first beneficiaries of an April 2003 bill awarding American citizenship to non-citizens killed in combat while serving with the U.S. military during the Global War on Terror.

The manpower demands of our wars abroad thus forced us to implement changes more than a decade ago aimed at incorporating all of those who wish to serve in the U.S. military, even if it were to expedite their U.S. citizenship.

Later, the U.S. military spent billions of dollars in various bonuses to keep its ranks filled with the volunteers. Additionally, in 2006 the upper age limit for enlistment was raised from 35 to 40 and then again to 42. Moreover, the U.S. military increased the number of high school dropouts and convicted felons. And for the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military found it necessary to keep active duty soldiers from separating, despite completion of their contracts, and to call up additional service members from the National Guard and the Reserves.

Even with a reduction in its numbers, the American armed forces will be stressed to fill their ranks with volunteers in the years to come. Should we become embroiled in another war, as we most surely will, those stresses will be even greater and could jeopardize our national security. Let those who do not wish to be American soldiers, sailors, Marines or airmen, or to fight in the defense of their country, serve elsewhere. But allow all of those who do, the opportunity to serve their adopted country, as they have done so honorably and faithfully for hundreds of years, in the ranks of its armed forces. That they do so to become U.S. citizens is nothing new. And they will have paid for that honor with their blood and sweat and tears. The same cannot be said of the vast majority of Americans, who take their citizenship for granted. It is time to allow undocumented immigrants to serve in the U.S. military. It’s good for America and the American people.