White House Delays Hagel's Enlistment Program for Children of Illegals

Sunday, 01 Jun 2014 09:46 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The White House has delayed a Pentagon plan to allow children of illegal immigrants to enlist in the military until Congress' summer session ends in hopes of avoiding conflict with House Republicans working on immigration reform.

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he'd taken initial action to allow immigrants to enlist, reports The New York Times.  But on Saturday, the White House asked him to hold off on the policy until August.

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Last week, President Barack Obama said he would hold off on any executive actions on immigration to allow House Republicans to move forward on legislation.

Hagel was also facing criticism from many senators, including Democratic Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, a proponent of the Dream Act, which gives citizenship to undocumented youth.

Under Hagel's plan, immigrants would have had to have deportation deferrals under a 2012 program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, reports The Huffington Post. To enlist, Hagel said, the young adults would have had to enlist under yet another Defense Department program for certain immigrants with special medical or language skills, a plan Durbin said did not reach enough. Instead, he wanted Hagel to allow enlistments to extend to a more broad group.

Immigrants who are in the United States legally can already enlist and then receive expedited naturalization as citizens, with more than 89,000 service members gaining citizenship in that way since September 2002.

But "Dreamers" cannot currently enlist and enjoy the same pathway to citizenship, even if they have been granted authorization to work and are allowed to remain in the United States under a deferred deportation status.

Immigrant rights leaders and legal experts said Hagel's plan provided only a narrow path to citizenship for such people, The Times reported, as only a small number of people would qualify for enlistment.

The White House was concerned that an action from the executive branch on the immigrants' enlistments may have angled Republicans while they were holding votes on immigration measures, reports The Times. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was also asked to postpone a deportations review he has completed.

"These are both modest steps, neither of which we are taking at this time," said White House Domestic Policy Adviser Cecilia Muñoz. "We will reassess once we see what Congress does or doesn’t do. The president is convinced there is a legislative opportunity, and that gives us the best chance to fix what is broken in our immigration system."

Hagel's plan calls for young enlistees to apply under an existing Defense Department program, Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, which allows immigrants with temporary visas to enlist if they have advanced medical skills or speak languages such as Farsi or Hindi. Hagel's plan allows those with deportation deferrals to also join the military under that program.

The current program has just 1,500 places and already suffers from a back log. In addition, only a few immigrants under deferrals have a medical background or the language skills needed.

"This policy does not fully tap into the great potential of Dreamers who want to serve this country in uniform," said Cesar Vargas, a leader of the Dream Action Coalition, a youth group that has been pressing the Pentagon to allow young immigrants to enlist.

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