Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona introduced a bill Thursday that would let recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) join the U.S. military.
Gallego’s bill, H.R. 9052, would allow DACA beneficiaries, who entered the U.S. unlawfully as children, to enlist in any one of the six U.S. armed forces, with a pathway to naturalize as U.S. citizens after a period of service. Currently, only U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents may enlist, while only citizens may seek commissions as officers.
The U.S. military previously had a program permitting DACA holders and certain non-immigrant visa holders to enlist in the military – the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest or MAVNI program – if they had a skillset in demand, typically physicians, technicians, and language specialists. Enlistees under MAVNI qualified for naturalization within one year of service, and it is estimated that thousands became U.S. citizens this way.
MAVNI was suspended in 2016 after the introduction of new security screening requirements. Recruitment was not reauthorized in 2017 under the Trump administration, and over 10,000 applications are pending.
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DACA, started by the Obama administration in 2012, has faced several court challenges to its validity, though federal judges have kept existing recipients on status while legal cases proceed. Gallego, meanwhile, has introduced the bill – known as the “Dream Act” – in every Congress since his election in 2015.
“We need more talented people in the military,” said Gallego to Roll Call upon re-introducing the bill, adding that “these are a population of people that are already serving their country in different ways. They’re very patriotic.”
Gallego, a Marine veteran who deployed to Iraq in 2005, serves on the House Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees.
The U.S. military currently faces a recruitment crisis not seen since the Vietnam War, according to The Washington Post. In 2022, it is scheduled to fall short of recruitment by 15%, with the Army facing the biggest deficit.
Military officials have sought to increase interest in joining the military by loosening fitness and academic standards as well as signing bonuses of up to $50,000, though these efforts have not closed the gap. Of the 485,000 troops sanctioned by Congress to the Army, it is expected to end the year with over 40,000 vacancies, or 34%.
Officials cite several reasons for the shortfall, including a competitive labor market, fixed enlistment contracts that lock in servicemembers for at least three years and a lack of interest by young people. The military “has to recognize that there has been an evolution in young people,” said Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel.
“We have warning lights flashing,” said Major Gen. Ed Thomas, the U.S. Air Force recruiting commander.