- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Defense Department said Monday it is looking at expanding its application pool by letting some young illegal immigrants join the military, in what could be another tool for an Obama administration seeking unilateral steps to take on immigration reform.

Immigrant rights advocates are pleading with the Pentagon to declare “dreamers” to be vital to the national interest, which would allow them to enlist in the military under a special program that grants non-immigrants a quick pathway to citizenship in exchange for years of military service.

Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness, said Monday that the Pentagon is in the middle of that review and hopes to complete it by the end of the summer, and is discussing the proposal with the Justice and Homeland Security departments.

“It’s very important to us that we are in concert to things that the White House thinks are very important, and we do too. So we’re looking to move forward on what ‘vital to the national interest’ means,” Ms. Wright said at a hearing in Chicago.

As movement on a broad immigration bill has stalled on Capitol Hill, immigrant rights advocates and Democrats in Congress have called for President Obama to move unilaterally to deport fewer illegal immigrants. The president has asked his homeland security secretary to review policies, but Monday’s hearing signals that the Pentagon is also part of the effort.

Enlistment is generally open only to citizens and legal permanent residents, or green card holders. The one exception is the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, which allows the department to take other recruits whom the Pentagon deems crucial.

Only those with key medical or language skills qualify, and Spanish is not deemed a critical language.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who orchestrated Monday’s hearing, urged the Defense Department to declare all young illegal immigrants who have taken advantage of Mr. Obama’s 2012 nondeportation order — known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival — to be eligible for the military accessions program.

“If you are willing to sign up in our military and risk your life for America, you should be given that opportunity,” Mr. Durbin said.

Those who have received the deferred action hold tentative legal status to remain in the U.S. and have been granted work permits. Many states are granting them in-state tuition rates at public colleges. They call themselves dreamers after failed legislation known as the Dream Act.

More than 500,000 dreamers have been granted deferred action status, and an estimated 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from high schools in the U.S. every year, the Defense Department said.

Mr. Durbin said given potential recruiting challenges for the military, the Pentagon could open another pool of applicants if it let dreamers qualify for the national interest exception.

Once they are enlisted in the military, they would have a speedy pathway to citizenship.

Immigrant rights advocates hoped not to have to rely on Mr. Obama. They thought Congress might pass the Enlist Act, officially granting dreamers a chance to join the military.

Indeed, Democrats and a handful of Republicans hoped to offer that provision as part of the debate on the annual defense policy bill, which comes to the House floor this week.

But some defense advocates criticized the move.

“The Enlist Act is unnecessary for national security, makes a mockery of U.S. immigration law, and is a slap in the face to those who want to come here and play by the rules,” said James Jay Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, signaled late last week that he would oppose the effort. A Cantor spokesman said it was wrong to mix immigration into the defense debate but the legislation could come up as a stand-alone measure later this year.

In Monday’s hearing, Mr. Durbin also took aim at Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who has helped lead opposition to legalizing illegal immigrants, and who has been critical of trying to mix immigration and defense policy.

Mr. Durbin called Mr. King one of the “voices of hate” on immigration for saying illegal immigrants who try to sign up for the military should be sent home.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard similar hateful comments from this congressman. I call on every member of Congress, both parties, to reject this hateful, divisive rhetoric. There is no place for this kind of language in any constructive debate about immigration,” Mr. Durbin said.

Mr. King’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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