A plan to allow some young people to serve in the U.S. military even if their parents brought them to America illegally as young children may be the opening some Republicans need to support at least limited immigration reform. The so-called ENLIST Act would grant to undocumented young immigrants the right to join the U.S. military and be eligible for citizenship after four years.
But the measure already suffered one defeat when its sponsor, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., tried to add it as an amendment this week to a must-pass defense policy bill. Still, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., both have said they don't have a problem with the principle of allowing so-called "DREAMers" to serve in the military and earn an expedited path to citizenship.
It's easy to see why the GOP leaders are open to the idea. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans currently serve in the U.S. military, and only 13 percent of those living now have ever served. What was once a duty (as well as a rite of passage) for American men has become the exception. With the end of the draft in 1973, fewer young men enlisted, and though the ranks of the military have been bolstered by the enlistment of women, who make up almost 20 percent of the military now, too few Americans choose to serve their country.
But there are thousands of young men and women who want to serve but can't because they came here illegally, often as very young children or even infants. They were raised and educated in the U.S. and now want to pay back the country they love by risking their lives to defend it. But current law only allows those who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents to serve -- with one important exception. A provision of law known as the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program allows the Pentagon to take other recruits deemed crucial. The administration is currently considering whether to invoke this provision to give DREAMers the right to enlist.
Unfortunately, the latter alternative might be a pyrrhic victory for immigration reform advocates. One of the chief objections of GOP opponents to reform legislation is that they don't trust the Obama administration to enforce the laws as written. Certainly the GOP-generated delays in getting immigration reform passed have frustrated those who want to see some resolution to our current immigration morass, but using executive authority may ultimately undermine the impetus to enact more comprehensive reform. If Republicans feel the president will simply do what he wants on this issue -- and whatever he thinks is politically expedient -- they will be far less likely to consider legislation.
The ENLIST Act gives Republicans a good compromise position. The most sympathetic group of illegal immigrants is made up of youngsters who came here with their parents. Most people recognize that a child is not morally or legally culpable for acts committed by his or her parents -- and many of these kids don't actually find out their illegal status until they have been here for years. Their stories are often tragic.
One young DREAMer I met when I moved to Colorado came here at age 2 with her parents, who had legal visas. Ana's parents earned permanent status when she was just a child, and all of her siblings were born here, but somehow Ana's application for permanent status slipped through the cracks. Ana found out her illegal status when she applied for a driver's license; until then, she had assumed she was American. She lived in fear for years afterward. But she started her own business, paid her taxes and became active in her Evangelical church, always worrying that a routine traffic stop would result in her deportation, until she received a reprieve when the administration granted deferred action to more than 500,000 DREAMers like her.
Republicans would be well advised to pass legislation that lets the Anas of the country serve in the military. If too few of those of us lucky enough to be born here are willing to risk our lives for our country, shouldn't we allow those who are willing to do so? It's the right -- and principled -- thing to do.