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Veterans, Policy Experts Call for More Immigrants, Dreamers in U.S. Military

A new report outlines the benefits of expanding the opportunity of military service for foreign-born Americans who want to serve their country.
Image: Commencement Ceremony Held At U.S. Military Academy At West Point
Cadets wait for the start of the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2017 graduation ceremony at Michie Stadium on May 27, 2017 in West Point, New York.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty Images

Erick Ruiz, who immigrated from Brazil with his mother when he was 11 years old in 1997, is one of many immigrants in the United States who wanted to join the armed forces but was unable to because of his citizenship status.

“When I hit high school and the reality of being undocumented [sank] in, I realized that my opportunities and my dreams were very limited because of my legal status,” Ruiz said during a press call. “I could not join the military as I always hoped for.”

But Ruiz, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, was later able to join the military under Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) — a program that accelerates the naturalization process for individuals with special skills — which was suspended last fall.

A new report created by the National Immigration Forum — an organization working for immigration reform that benefits the nation — describes the struggles Ruiz and other immigrants face when trying to join the military. It also urges Congress to reform immigration policies to make it easier for foreign born Americans to participate in military services.

The paper, “For Love of Country: New Americans Serving in Our Armed Forces,” cites that as of 2016 there were approximately 511,00 foreign born veterans, and 20 percent of the 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients are immigrants.

Jacinta Ma, the National Immigration Forum’s Director of Policy and Advocacy explained that the consequences of not being a U.S. citizen are very real for these foreign born veterans.

“In some cases, veterans who did not naturalize during or after enlistment, they’ve been deported, losing not only the country that they’ve fought for but also the benefits they earned, such as access to the veterans’ administration,” Ma said during a press call.

Ma also said that without recruiting immigrants, only a small portion of the young population would make for viable recruits.

“The Center for Naval Analysis estimated in 2015 that only 13 percent of 17 to 24 year olds in the U.S. are qualified and available to serve in the military,” Ma said.

This statistic means only 136,000 teeneragers and young adults — or just .4 percent — would be “willing and qualified to serve,” according to the paper.

Margaret Stock, a retired U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant and colonel and former West Point Military Academy professor, noted that the armed forces’ current citizenship criteria is negatively impacting the military's recruitment options.

“Right now the military is forced to lower its enlistment standards for native born Americans and take much less qualified native born Americans, peoples with criminal records — people who don’t otherwise meet military enlistment standards — in order to meet recruitment goals,” Stock said during the press call.

Stock added these circumstances would all change if Congress were to reform current immigration policies.

“If Congress were to enact comprehensive immigration reform, it would make it easier for people to get green cards.” Stock added. “This would open up an extraordinarily large pool of folks in the U.S. population who would then be eligible for military service.”

For Ruiz, this paper is a way to show the nation that immigrants are an essential part of American society.

“This country is my home,” Ruiz lamented. “This is all I’ve ever know for the past 20 years. I don't know any other country. I don't know any other way of life...So I hope this moves forward and people actually see the benefits that immigrants can bring into the military."

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