Alejandro Morales has dreams of becoming the Marines’ first Latino commandant. But, having been carried across the border at only seven months old, Morales is an undocumented immigrant and thus cannot enlist in the military.
“I grew up here this is all I know, I’m Mexican and I’m proud of that, but I’m also an American,” said the 19 year-old graduate of Chicago’s Marine Military Math and Science Academy.
Morales was one of four undocumented military students to speak about the importance of comprehensive immigration reform Tuesday at the Marine Military Math and Science Academy. Attended by approximately 200 cadets from several of the city’s six public military-themed high schools, the forum was sponsored by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). The forum's particpants called on U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to support pending immigration legislation.
Attendees were encouraged to write a message about immigration reform on an oversized picture of Kirk, which will be delivered to his office.
“All I want to do is serve this country as a Marine, not for selfish reasons, but really to give back to the country and serve this country,” Morales said.
Unable to enlist or afford college, as undocumented immigrants do not qualify for federal financial aid, he is now learning to be a truck driver. He applied for deferred action and a temporary work permit earlier this year.
“I believe what this country stands for, I would give my life to those around me and for the country,” Morales said. “I believe in that.”
In an attempt to create a streamlined path to citizenship for America’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, an immigration reform package was introduced in April by a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators referred to as the “Gang of Eight.” The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, S 744, lays out a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria. After a 10-year wait, they would be eligible to apply for a green card, and would then be able to apply to be a U.S. citizen after an additional three years' time.
A key component of the bill is the DREAM Act, which would provide citizenship to young undocumented immigrants who serve at least four years in the military or attend two years of college. To qualify, applicants must have entered the U.S. at an age younger than 16, have been in America since December 31, 2011, and have received a high school diploma or equivalent. Recipients of a green card under the DREAM Act would be able to bypass a waiting period and immediately apply for citizenship.
The bill was passed by a 13-5 vote last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee and now advances to the full Senate.
Francisco Peralta, 17, a senior at Phoenix Military Academy who was brought from Mexico to the U.S. at the age of three, said he hopes “to be a leader amongst peers.” Also an undocumented immigrant, he spoke with Progress Illinois about his dreams of becoming an Army officer:
“We have many young people who want to serve, and we should not be turning away all this talent and enthusiasm and patriotism,” said Fred Tsao, policy director for ICIRR. “Rather than telling these young people, ‘No you can’t join the military, you can’t relize your dream,’ we should be fully embracing them.”
According to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), a member of the Gang of Eight who spoke at an unrelated event last week, “the DREAM Act included in the comprehensive immigration reform is the strongest version of the law that has ever been written.”
“This time we have a chance to pass it,” he said.
Durbin first introduced the DREAM Act in 2001 and several versions of the bill have been proposed over the course of 12 years. But federal legislation has yet to be passed, and in 2010 the bill fell five votes short of breaking a Republican filibuster.
That year, Kirk sided with Republicans and blocked the DREAM Act from advancing. This year, advocates are saying they don’t want that to happen again.
“The political situation is very different now than it was in 2010, there’s a lot more awareness of the need for immigration reform,” Tsao said. “We are urging Senator Kirk to support broader immigration reform that will include this pathway to citizenship, specifically for these young people who want to serve in our military and contribute to our country’s well being.”
The Illinois DREAM Act was enacted in 2011. The law established a privately-funded Illinois DREAM Fund to create for scholarships to undocumented youth. It also gives families the opportunity to take part in college savings and prepaid tuition programs. Illinois is the country’s first state to create a private scholarship fund for undocumented college students.
Todd Conner, executive director for military academies in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), called the Illinois DREAM Act a “step in the right direction,” but said undocumented youth’s inability to enlist in the military is a “clear impediment” to his students.
“These students go through life living normal lives as Americans, and then they turn 18 and it comes time to make choices about college or enlisting in the military, and they get stopped short,” he said.
With approximately 11,000 students enrolled, CPS operates the nation’s largest Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program. Conner estimates that 20 percent of the students are undocumented.
“It’s easy to take a side on this, or be opposed to immigration reform, until you meet students,” he said, regarding Kirk’s opposition. “But these students are doing the right things, playing by the rules, living American lives and representing the best in this country. We need to personalize immigration reform so people understand what this means for real kids.”
Meanwhile, Jose Pantoja, 17, said his dreams of becoming an Army officer were “crushed” when he learned of the post's citizenship requirements.
“The first time I wore my uniform I had goosebumps,” he said.
Brought from Mexico to the U.S. at the age of four, Pantoja is an undocumented immigrant and senior at Chicago Military Academy. He is also president of his school’s National Honor’s Society and will be graduating at the top of his class.
He said if Kirk were to support the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, it would benefit the entire country. He was one of more than 30 forum attendees to sign Kirk’s picture, urging the legislator to support immigration reform.
“We are aspiring servicemen and women who have aspirations to be in the United States military,” he said. “We just want our chance to show our leadership and make contributions to the United States.”