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DOD Opens Military to Youth Here Illegally With Needed Skills

It's not the broad action advocates want, but the Obama administration opened a path to citizenship for some qualified young immigrants here illegally.
Image: Congressional Democrats, Activists, Call On DOD To Let DREAMER's Serve In Military
File photo of Cesar Vargas,co-director of the DREAM Action Coalition speaks while flanked by Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) (L) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) during a news conference on Capitol Hill July 25, 2014 in Washington, DC. The members of Congress called on the Defense Department to allow certain undocumented individuals who were brought to the United States as children, to serve in the military. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

A Defense Department decision to allow some immigrants illegally here and with needed skills or background to serve in the military is not intended to be a substitute for executive action the president plans to announce at year’s end, the White House said Friday.

The Department of Defense is allowing young immigrants with Deferred Action Childhood Arrival, or DACA, status, to join the military if they have critical language, health care skills or the cultural background needed to support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

The move falls far short of what the administration and immigration reformers wanted from Congress.

“The president is determined to act, within the scope of his authority, to fix as much of our broken immigration system as he can through executive action and he will act before the end of the year,” a White House official said on condition of not being named. “But nothing will replace the long-lasting solutions only Congress can offer through commonsense immigration reform, and the president will keep pressing Congress to act.”

For those who do qualify, the program provides a path to legal status and citizenship that is not available to DACA recipients now.

Opening up the military to immigrants without legal status was endorsed by some Republicans during this session. But, bills offered by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., and Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.” to do so were spiked by their own party members.

The Senate-passed comprehensive immigration bill included an expedited path to citizenship, three years, for young immigrants if they served at least two years in the military. The bill never got consideration in the GOP-controlled House.

The move falls short of the broad deportation deferral immigration advocates are demanding of President Barack Obama.

Cesar Vargas, co-director of DRM Action Coalition, a Dreamer advocacy group, said the move is a positive step but “incomplete.” “There are many other qualified young Dreamers who have other critical skills like computer science, cyber security that our military needs,” he said Friday.

Started as a pilot program in 2009, the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, or MAVNI, program was due to expire Sept. 30. The DOD extended it and made the change to the program’s rules, which has up to now only allowed the recruitment of people in the U.S. legally, with asylum or temporary protected status as a refugee or holding any number of immigrant visas.

“The department has a critical need for qualified health care professionals and individuals with certain language capabilities, as well as associated cultural backgrounds,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a DOD spokesman.

Spanish, the language of a significant portion of young immigrants, is not on the list of needed languages.

The DOD was uncertain how many DACA recipients qualify but there is an annual 1,500 limit on recruits. Pursuing higher education has been difficult for many young immigrants here illegally because of college costs and work prohibitions.