Lawrence Romo, director of the Selective Service System, said many young men, a lot of them Hispanic, don't know they have to sign up for the draft.
The Latino director has been traveling the country urging states to make draft registration automatic through driver's licenses. Romo said many young Latinos end up losing out on crucial college grants, federal and even municipal employment or other benefits because they did not sign up.
And though they are barred from military active duty in the current all-volunteer military, even young immigrant men here illegally are still required to sign up for the draft, just like all other young men in the country.
Romo talked to NBC about the Selective Service System, how the draft operates and his outreach efforts. Here is an edited and condensed version.
NBC: What is Selective Service?
Romo: The Selective Service System was started in 1940 when it looked like World War II was going to happen and they needed manpower. Historically, we had drafts in the Civil War and World War I, but they wanted to have an independent agency, so they started in 1940 and had a draft in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It went dormant and we didn’t register young men. In 1980 … Congress passed the Selective Service Act. We’ve registered young men since then.
NBC: Who has to sign up?
Romo: All young men 18 to 25 have to register regardless of status, whether they are citizens, have a green card or undocumented status. The only ones excepted are sons of foreign diplomats (living in the U.S.) or international students here on a student visa. If someone is incarcerated, of course, they aren’t going to be registered. But if they are under 26 when they come out of prison then we’ll register them if they are under 26.
NBC: What happens if you don’t sign up?
Romo: If you don’t register by age 26, it’s too late to register. There are penalties tied to registration … Department of Justice can fine them $250,000 and five years in prison. However, during peace time, they don’t do that …Where the penalties are tied are in lost federal benefits. You cannot get federal Pell grants if you don’t register, you cannot get a federal job if you don’t register and then you are delayed citizenship if you don’t register. Obviously if you are 18-25 and applying for citizenship you can register. But at age 26 … you have to wait until age 31 for citizenship … Also many state jobs, certain counties and municipalities _ some like even to become a fireman in certain municipalities _ they tie that to Selective Service.
Young men cannot obtain federal Pell grants or many government jobs without registering, and for immigrants the process of citizenship is delayed too.
NBC: I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear immigrants here illegally have to sign up.
Romo: It even surprises the immigrants themselves too. For the undocumented to qualify for the (state) Dream Act, for the Califoria State Educational Grant, they have to register with Selective Service and with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) men have to register with Selective Service.
NBC: What’s the logic in the idea behind immigrants (here illlegaly) having to register if they can’t serve?
Romo: First of all we don’t ask anyone’s status .. but if we had an extreme national emergency it would be all hands on deck, just like in World War II. I can clearly tell you we had some undocumented in World War II … Also it helps the undocumented (to sign up) because it gives them a federal document saying they were in this country as a step to citizenship.
NBC: If you are undocumented and you sign up will your information be shared with immigration officials?
Romo: We don’t ask anybody’s status so we wouldn’t know if they are undocumented or not.
NBC: What are some things you're doing to make sure young men know this?
Romo: We have an agreement with over 40 states and territories’ Department of Motor Vehicles, and out of that, 27 are automatic (so) that when a young man gets a driver’s license ,they authorize consent and we get their information … the others are optional which means the young men have to do an automatic opt in and opt out …. We send two notices to people to make sure they know about signing up.
NBC: How much compliance do you get?
Romo: From 18-25, 93 percent of the people register by 25. But the key is trying to get young men registered by age 20, because if we have the draft we would go 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 19, 18.
NBC: That’s pretty high; is that better than other times in history?
Romo: I would say during peacetime it’s pretty good. … A lot of it has to do again with those driver’s license agreements we have with states. Like Texas was very low in compliance and they’ve increased dramatically since they passed the driver’s license legislation in Texas.
NBC: Do you get most registrations through driver’s licenses?
Romo: We get a lot online, SSS.gov.
NBC: Where are you trying to get automatic signup next?
Romo: We are still working with the state of California where they have a low registration rate, especially 18, 19 and 20. We are also working with Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We have opt-in in District of Columbia and even with that the registration compliance rate is 69 percent.
NBC: You tried to get that in California this year, what happened?
Romo: The bill just died … It passed through their Assembly and through the Senate Transportation Committee, but it died in Appropriations the last day.
NBC: Do you have any sense of how Latinos do in registering?
Romo: We don’t have the percentages but we are knowledgable that many of the states have difficulties, like Texas before we had driver’s license (legislation). The border states, they were low … We get thousands of letters from different people saying they weren’t aware of our registration and you can tell many are Asian or Hispanic names. And phone calls, we have two bilingual (Spanish-speaking) people on staff … Florida has driver’s license registration-so they are doing very well.