Members of Congress on Friday challenged a military policy that bans troops who have illegal immigrant spouses or children, saying it amounts to unfair discrimination against people who are volunteering to serve their country.
In a stern letter to the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the 33 lawmakers demanded to know when the policies were put in place and how many people have tried to enlist but been denied because of their relatives' legal status.
"There is no reason I can think of why any branch of the military should restrict the military service of individuals based on the immigration status of someone else in their family. None," said Rep. Luis V. Gutirrez, an Illinois Democrat who helped organize the letter. "I want to know where this is happening, why and what is being done to fix it."
The Navy and Marines have the policies, but the Air Force does not, and neither apparently does the Army — and that incongruity raises questions of its own.
"There is no [Department of Defense] policy barring enlistments of an otherwise qualified eligible applicant with a spouse who is an illegal alien. However, the services have established policies barring enlistment of individuals married to illegal aliens based on administrative and security concerns, particularly not being able to issue an ID card to illegals," Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, spokesman for the Defense Department's personnel and readiness office, said in an email last week when asked about the policy.
He said military policy prohibits issuing cards to anyone in the country without authorization.
A military ID helps troops' dependents get onto military bases and take advantage of military discounts.
The Navy and Marine policies received coverage in the Spanish-language press last week, prompting the lawmakers to write.
The Army's press office didn't return a call seeking comment Friday, while a spokeswoman for the Air Force said they don't have such a policy.
Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Wendy Snyder said it would be "inappropriate" to respond in the press to a letter sent to the secretary, but confirmed their policy is "based on security and administrative concerns, particularly not being able to issue an ID card."
A message left with the Marines wasn't returned Friday.
Immigration and the military have been a hot topic for some time. With immigrants serving and dying in the war on terrorism, lawmakers and then-President George W. Bush moved to make it easier for them to earn citizenship, and to protect family members of troops who were in the immigration process in case that person was killed in action.
Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security, tacitly recognizing that some troops do have close relatives who are illegal immigrants, issued a policy granting those illegal immigrants a chance to apply for "parole in place," essentially a tentative legal status.
Immigrant-rights groups hailed that as a major step.
Homeland Security said that troops who are worried about their wives, parents or children being deported could be dispirited, and it painted the move as a way to maintain troop morale.
However, the policy went beyond active-duty troops to include family members of veterans, too. Homeland Security officials said they qualified because the country owed them a debt of gratitude.
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