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Defense bill blocks effort to recruit more immigrants

May. 22, 2014 - 05:53PM   |  
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An effort to expand the military’s recruiting pool to include some people who entered the country illegally stalled Thursday after Republicans on Capitol Hill blocked the measure.

Many Democrats and the Pentagon’s leadership have backed a proposed law that would open the door to military service to young adults who were brought to this country illegally by their parents.

But when House Republicans passed their version of the annual defense authorization bill Thursday, they left out the proposed changes to immigration laws. Republicans have traditionally opposed legislation that makes it easier for people living in the country without legal permission to obtain citizenship.

Each year, military recruiters accept about 5,000 noncitizens who have legal visas or residency status. The Defense Department’s top personnel official said recently that the military would like to expand opportunities for immigrants.

“The department does not question their patriotism. They have lived, died, fought, bled, wept for our country,” Jessica Wright, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, testified at a congressional hearing May 19.

“Noncitizen recruits continue to provide the services with a diverse force in terms of ... race, language and culture,” Wright said.

The political debate comes at a time when the Pentagon and White House are planning to roll out a new slate of military policies related to immigration.

Enlistment is typically limited to citizens and permanent residents, or so-called green card holders. But one exception to that is a program launched in 2012 that targets foreigners with unique skills, such as doctors or foreign language speakers.

The program, known as the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, is under review and could be expanded.

“We think it’s very important to take a look at the MAVNI program that was established a while ago and see what that ‘vital to national interest’ means,” Wright told lawmakers. “I cannot tell you what that means at this point in time. I would like to be able to give you a whole host of particular occupational specialties, but I cannot do this.”

She said the Pentagon may finalize its decision this summer.

Another immigration-related issue under review in DoD involves whether individuals who are married to illegal immigrants in the U.S. can enlist.

The Navy and Marine Corps have refused to consider those individuals for recruitment, saying that having a spouse who is in the country illegally prevents the service from conducting the complete background check and security review that every recruit must undergo.

DoD is working with U.S. immigration officials to determine if that issue could be resolved by expanding the “parole in place” policy, which applies to active-duty service members, and provides a way to prevent the deportation of military dependents.

If that policy was expanded to include prospective recruits, it would clear the way for lawful permanent residents and citizens who have family members living in the U.S. illegally to enlist in the military by granting a temporary legal immigration status for the family member.

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