One of the most high profile bills in Congress at the moment is the ENLIST Act. This bill originated in the House and was penned by Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA-10). The main function of the bill is to allow immigrants without legal status to enlist in the armed forces and then obtain permanent residency status. Introduced about a year ago, the ENLIST Act has bipartisan support with 31 Democratic cosponsors and 25 Republican. While it was originally attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, Speaker Boehner blocked the amendment over concern that the controversial clause could harm the “must-pass” bill.¹ The amendment is now being considered as a standalone bill. At a time when immigration reform is a hot-button issue and broad reform legislation has stalled in the House, this act could begin the piecemeal approach that many have been asking for.
To fully understand the implications of this act, it’s helpful to have a little bit of background on our current immigration system. Legal immigrants come to the U.S. under various types of visas (student, employment, etc.) which allow them to live, work, and/or study in the country temporarily. This, in and of itself, is an extremely difficult process. In fact, the limited number of H-1B visas, those that allow foreign workers to work in the U.S. in specialized fields, is one of the driving forces behind immigration reform.² In order to remain here permanently, an individual must then obtain permanent resident status, more commonly known as a “green card.” The only way an individual can currently obtain this is through
- A family member (ex. your spouse is a U.S. citizen)
- Employment (employer sponsored and with preference to specialized workers or investors willing to put $500,000 or $1 million into a U.S. business)
- Green Card Lotteries: Ethnic Diversity (for countries with the fewest immigrants to the U.S.)
- Special Immigrants (ex. clergy and other religious workers for legitimate religious organizations)
- Refugee or Asylum status
- Other special cases (ex. humanitarian reasons in extraordinary cases)³
With this background in mind, I wanted to take a stab at examining the ENLIST Act. First, I think it’s great that immigrants serving in the military would be granted a pathway to citizenship. Anyone who is willing to fight and die for our country, shouldn’t have to be fearful of deportation nor should they be denied rights to which the rest of us are entitled. In a lot of ways, this seems like a no-brainer. But I also want to explore the other side of the argument. First, this system could be perceived as a trade rather than merely a benefit of military service – a deal in which we offer citizenship in exchange for this type of risky service. I also worry that in some ways, this amendment will make military service seem like a “requirement” for citizenship. Maybe not on paper, but in practice. As our immigration system stands now, enlisting in the military could be viewed as an “easy” or, for some, the only way to obtain legal status. While there are some limitations on who would be eligible for this (must have been 15 years or younger when they entered the United States and have been here continuously since Dec. 31, 2011), it’s possible that with such stringent restrictions elsewhere, these individuals will feel boxed into this opportunity. Volunteering for the military should be exactly that – voluntary.
The Pentagon has also discussed the possibility of a similar policy but with other restrictions. This policy would allow young immigrants who have deportation deferrals⁴ to join a specific program currently only available for immigrants who have special skills in medicine or language.⁵ This program would then allow them to begin an expedited path to citizenship lasting as little as three months. Unfortunately, this program would likely not be available to immigrants who had been in the country illegally for any period of time, thereby disqualifying a large group of potential recruits.⁶ These restrictions are strict and leave out many individuals who could positively contribute to our military and to our communities.
This gets us back to the questions at the root of this issue. While the ENLIST Act may not solve all the problems of our immigration system, is it a first and right step? And more broadly, should we tackle immigration reform as a whole or break it down into step by step measures, such as the ENLIST Act? Let the debate continue…
¹Kim, S. and French, L. (2014). John Boehner: Talks about bringing ENLIST act to floor. Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/story/2014/05/john-boehner-immigration-enlist-act-house-106888.html
² United States, Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division. (n.d.). H-1B program. Retrieved from http://www.dol.gov/whd/immigration/h1b.htm
³ Bray, I., J.D. (n.d.). Green card qualification: categories of people who can apply for a green card, to make their home in the U.S. Nolo. Retrieved from http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/qualify-green-card-permanent-residence-30085.html
⁴ As part of the President’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, individuals meeting certain requirements are eligible for “deferred removal action.” More info here: http://www.dhs.gov/deferred-action-childhood-arrivals
⁵ Preston, Julia. (2014). Pentagon Plan to Enlist Young Immigrants is Delayed at White House’s request. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/us/politics/pentagon-puts-off-a-plan-to-enlist-young-immigrants.html
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