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From Draft NOtices, July-September 2007

Immigration and Military Enlistment:
The Pentagon's Push for the DREAM Act Heats Up

—Jorge Mariscal

"The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, provision in the immigration bill is expected to help boost military recruiting.” − Bill Carr, Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy

"I've been here almost eight years. I feel like I belong to this country," he said. "People like me, we want to serve the country. We love this country. We don't have papers. We can't afford to go to college. The military is the perfect option for us.” − Sebastián, undocumented student from Mexico

In early June, a two-pronged media cycle dealing with the issue of non-citizen soldiers and military recruitment slowly began to materialize. Following on the heels of an internal Pentagon study that reported a general decrease in interest in military service among young Americans, the debate about the role of non-citizens in the U.S. military intensified.

In the Washington Post, reporter Brigid Schulte filed a feature story titled, “Why Won't We Let Them Fill the Ranks?”, in which she described the willingness of many undocumented youth to enlist. Schulte’s piece is filled with enthusiastic comments from undocumented youth who are eager to sign up.

At one point, she depicts a group of undocumented workers cheering as the invasion of Iraq begins, apparently because the war would afford them the opportunity to enlist.

As immigration reform failed to move forward in Congress, Pentagon spokesmen made public statements about their hope that at least the DREAM Act part of the legislation would pass. In an article published by the American Forces Press Service, Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Carr stated, “Talk is already taking place to see if at least the DREAM provision of the stalled bill can proceed."

In a marriage of strange bedfellows, proponents of the DREAM Act and Pentagon officials are hoping that programs such as the DREAM Act will be passed as stand-alone bills. But lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham do not see this as a real possibility without comprehensive immigration reform: “The only way we’re going to get ag[ricultural] jobs or DREAM Act is to do it together,” he told a reporter.

The Recruiter’s DREAM

Over the last several years, COMD has reported on the hidden provision in the DREAM Act that would tie permanent legal residency to military service. The most recently defeated legislation − the DREAM Act of 2007 (sections 621 through 632) − proposed by Sen. Edward Kennedy with the co-sponsorship of Sen. Arlen Specter, would have created a path to a green card for any undocumented youth who arrived in the United States before they were 16, lived here for five years, and successfully completed high school. Those who met these requirements would have received provisional residency that would become permanent once they complete two years of college or two years in the military (of course, there is no such thing as a two-year military contract).

According to a Pentagon spokesman, about 8,000 permanent resident aliens currently enlist every year. The DREAM Act could conceivably open the floodgates to the some 750,000 undocumented military-age youth who meet the profile described above. It could potentially provide an additional 65,000 high school graduates every year. Even if only a small percentage of that group opted for military service, a bonanza of warm bodies would become available to increasingly desperate recruiters.

Conservatives who oppose the recruitment of more non-citizens into the military fundamentally misunderstand the group that would qualify under the DREAM Act provisions. In a publication of the John Birch Society, for example, Ann Shibler asked: “Is it wise to look to illegal immigrants who haven't assimilated well, learned the language of our nation, and whose loyalties may lie elsewhere to be trained in the finer points of warfare and combat?”

But in fact the vast majority of these students will have been well acculturated into U.S. society, have a high school or even a college diploma and no criminal record, be perfectly bilingual in English and Spanish, and express a strong desire to prove their loyalty to the United States.

Although the draft of the most recent legislation suggested that those undocumented immigrants who enlist under the provision would become eligible for a so-called Z visa − the status that already is used to grant probationary, or conditional, status as a legal resident − DREAM Act proponents are working to separate their constituents out from the Z visa category because of its much longer list of requirements.

Ironically, nativist and restrictionist groups, as well as anti-militarism activists and militant Chicano organizations, will oppose the recruitment of the undocumented although for completely different reasons.
The Association of Raza Educators in Los Angeles has supported undocumented students with scholarships and mentoring but now publicly opposes the DREAM Act legislation because of the military component. Their July press release took issue with groups supporting the DREAM Act and stated: “According to research on the education pipeline for Raza students, the vast majority will be forced to legalize by joining the U.S. Armed Forces. We hope that these ‘activist’ and non-profit organizations look past their self interest and think carefully about the adverse effects the DREAM Act will have on the ENTIRE undocumented community and on poor peoples around the world” (emphasis in original).

On the other side of the political spectrum, the National Council for La Raza (NCLR) supports a vehicle for recruiting undocumented graduates from U.S. high schools. In May 2006, NCLR praised the passage of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (Senate Bill 2611) that included a DREAM Act provision.

The High Cost of Legalization

In her story on non-citizen soldiers, writer Mary Spicuzza tells of Angel Gómez, an immigrant from the Mexican state of Jalisco:

Angel wasn't the best student, and without scholarships, he felt like he didn't have a choice. So he enlisted, even though his mother tried to stop him. "I knew he was fighting for a better life, but I told him I would prefer him to be poor and have a humble job," she says. "But he wanted to study, and we couldn't pay for it."

He enlisted in July 2003. Two years later, after he'd returned from Iraq, Angel was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. But things were different since he got injured there. Sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a plastic helmet to protect his brain, Angel and his parents faced an immigration official.

"Please raise your right hand," the official said. Angel couldn't − he's mostly lost the use of that arm. He raised his left hand instead and said a soft "I do" at the proper moment.

Angel was finally a citizen, but any hopes of going to college were all but dashed. He had to once again learn how to walk, to talk, and to live on his own.

Angel’s story is dramatic but not necessarily unique. Some non-citizens who have fought in Iraq have been denied citizenship upon their return simply because of a minor criminal infraction on their record. Others have paid the ultimate price − more than 125 “green card” service members have died in the combat zone.

The situation for non-citizen soldiers, even those who have served overseas and received honorable discharges, continues to be fraught with legal obstacles. Take the case of the two veterans in Texas, for example, who enlisted as permanent residents and eventually became citizens. Because the Texas Hazelwood Act states that only those who were U.S. citizens at the time of their enlistment will be exempted from paying tuition and some fees at state colleges, the two men were denied the benefits awarded to their fellow veterans. A lawsuit will decide the matter sometime this summer.

During the first week of July, undocumented students from the California DREAM Network began a fast in several cities designed to accelerate passage of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. Many of these students are already doing well in colleges across the nation; others have already received their degree and are hoping to go on to graduate studies.

These are the lucky ones. They have overcome great obstacles and see the DREAM Act legislation as their salvation because it would allow them to move out of the shadows and into legal status. Although some express concern about the military option, they argue that they will work to educate their peers about the potentially high cost of legalization through military service.

But how many of their less fortunate compatriots will they be able to reach and how many will they convince? Won’t the vast majority of undocumented youth find the college path simply too difficult and the military path deceptively simple? How many like Sebastián and Angel will end up as cannon fodder in the next unnecessary war?

Information sources: Rowan Scarborough, “Interest in military service plummets among the young,” (Atlanta; June 4, 2007); Donna Miles, “Officials Hope to Rekindle Interest in Immigration Bill Provision,” American Forces Press Service (June 11, 2007); Brigid Schulte, “Why Won't We Let Them Fill the Ranks?,” (June 3, 2007); Mary Spicuzza, “An Army of Uno,” San Francisco (June 20, 2007); Bryan Bender, “Immigration bill offers a military path to US dream,” Boston Globe (June 16, 2007).

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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