DOD planning to let illegal immigrants enlist

The Defense Department plans to let some illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children enlist in the military -- a policy that comes as the Army is effectively firing active-duty soldiers due to budget cuts.

The Military Times reports that a program -- called the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, or MAVNI -- which currently allows recruiters to search for foreign nationals with unique skills will be expanded to accommodate the new policy.

The Defense Department now wants to let in some illegal immigrants who enjoyed a reprieve under a 2012 Obama administration policy. That policy applied to those who came to the country before they were 16 years old and spares them from deportation.

The new program reportedly is capped at 1,500 recruits every year, and could be the first step in an effort to create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

Lt. Commander Nate Christensen, a DOD spokesman, said late Friday,  "The Department continues to work closely with the Department of Homeland Security and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in reviewing all MAVNI candidates.

"We do not know how many people with the required skills will apply to enter the military and therefore do not have an estimate of how many people this will potentially impact."

According to the Army's recruiting site, the program offers a range of benefits to applicants -- who until now were largely legal noncitizen residents. Among the benefits offered are educational aid, pay and benefits from service, and "expedited citizenship."

The decision to move forward on the new, and likely controversial, policy comes after the White House initially asked the Pentagon to hold off on letting such illegal immigrants seek a path to citizenship by serving in the military.

That request came over the summer at a time when the White House was still trying to get Republican congressional support for comprehensive immigration legislation. The White House has since given up on that effort, for now, and is pursuing unilateral executive actions instead.

But the military, while expanding who may be eligible to join, also is making steep reductions to comply with congressionally mandated budget cuts.

The Army alone is removing thousands from the active-duty ranks, in a bid to reduce the force strength from about 520,000 soldiers earlier this year to as low as 440,000. Those cuts have raised concerns about military readiness.

The policy that opened the door for young illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. is the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, announced by President Obama in 2012. More than 500,000 immigrants have benefited from the program.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.