As President Barack Obama weighs executive actions on immigration issues, U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL,11) is calling on the Department of Defense to allow young undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers to serve in the military.
In 2012, Obama set up the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants a two-year protection against deportation for DREAMers, or immigrants who came to the United States as young children prior to June of 2007. The program lets the immigrants work in the country legally, for example, but it does not provide them with a pathway to citizenship or allow them to join the U.S. Armed Forces.
"To qualify for a DACA exemption, applicants must undergo background checks and finish high school," Foster said at a press conference Friday morning in Washington, D.C. "It is simply bad policy to turn away these young men and women while we struggle to find qualified Americans who are able and willing to serve. And it is morally reprehensible to deny these patriotic young men and women the opportunity to serve the country they love."
Foster, along with U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO,2) and 17 other members of Congress, introduced a House resolution Friday urging Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to let DREAMERs enlist in the military. Proponents of such a move say DACA-eligible immigrants should be able to obtain a green card after serving in the military.
"A year ago we sent a letter to the Department of Defense asking them to let DREAMers serve in the military," Foster said. "They told us it was a good idea, and they would study it. Well, it’s time to stop thinking and start acting."
The Obama administration could change the policy through executive action, the congressman said.
"This is just one small fix we can make to our broken immigration system, but it’s a fix that will give hope and opportunity to thousands of DREAMERs while strengthening our military," Foster stressed.
Polis added that it "makes little sense that DACA individuals who would be honored to serve the only country they call home are automatically ineligible for military service."
The Colorado congressman also pointed out that House Republicans "have failed to move any immigration reform bills to the floor this entire House, but have passed amendments to defund the entire DACA program."
"This step we're urging the administration to take is an important step right now to strengthen our armed forces and national security as well as make progress towards the goal of reforming our broken immigration system," Polis said.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration reform group America’s Voice, said he would prefer to see Congress enact legislation to overhaul the country's immigration system, including the military policy changes for DREAMers.
"But apparently they've decided 'no', and it's going to be left up to the president to take action on his own," Sharry said.
Obama has asked Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder to provide him with measures he can take by executive action involving immigration and deportation matters. The recommendations are due to the president by the end of the summer.
"As he considers executive action going forward, we strongly urge him to include the opportunity for young men and women who are eligible for DACA to be eligible to serve in the military, so they can make our country stronger and fulfill their commitment to duty," Sharry said.
Cesar Vargas, co-director of the DREAM Action Coalition, or DRM, attended today's news conference. Vargas was brought to the United States from Mexico at the age of five by his parents and grew up in New York. After high school, Vargas attempted to join the military, but was turned away because of his immigration status.
"Since then I've graduated college, graduate law school, and now [I'm] still seeking an opportunity to serve my country," he said. "Serving in the military has been an aspiration for me because it's not only a way to contribute but also to show that the U.S. is my home."
Undocumented Illinois, a coalition of local and youth-led organizations advocating for the rights of undocumented immigrants, has not yet taken a position on the issue of allowing DREAMers in the military, said coalition organizer Sean McClellan.
The coalition has instead placed its focus on urging the Obama administration to halt deportations and expand the deferred action program to include as many immigrants as possible.
Chicagoans To Rally Against Deportations In Washington, D.C.
On August 2, Undocumented Illinois activists will join other immigrant advocacy groups from across the country in Washington, D.C. for a day of action as part of the national Not One More Deportation campaign. The aim is to urge Obama to provide administrative relief from deportations for as many undocumented immigrants as possible.
More than 150 Chicagoans and families impacted by deportations are set to take three buses to the nation's Capitol for the march and rally, Undocumented Illinois organizers said. The event will kick off at the National Mall in the morning followed by a march to the Department of Homeland Security building and other stops. The day of action will end with a rally outside of the White House.
"About 1,100 people are deported everyday, and that's something we see in Chicago all the time with families torn apart, families in detention," McClellan told Progress Illinois. "We've seen that nothing is going to be coming out of Congress to deal with the deportation crisis this year, so everything is pretty much in Obama's hands now.
"This is his chance to make a stance for immigrants and show how he's going to be remembered. Is he going to be remembered as the deporter in chief, who's deported more immigrants than any other president, or is he going to take a stand to protect immigrant communities from family separation?"
The Not One More Deportation campaign launched last year. One of its goals is to make as much noise as possible about deportations, said Undocumented Illinois organizer Reyna Wences.
"I think now people are talking about deportations, and we've been able to get this far because of organizations, like those in Illinois like Undocumented Illinois," she said. "And people directly affected have taken action and put their bodies on the line, oftentimes risking arrest and deportation."
"The pressure did work, and so it's just a matter of continuing that pressure and also realizing that … whatever does happen, this is not the end," Wences added. "Deportations will continue to happen, regardless if administrative relief happens or not. (Executive action) can put us at a good place where we can win something, take time to recharge, and continue with the work that has to be done locally."
Image courtesy of Congressman Foster's office.