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Gutting the DREAM Act

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Esther Cepeda
February 8, 2012
— During one of the Republican debates in Florida, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney agreed that the only way they’d support the DREAM Act is to take out the educational component.

Coincidentally, the day after the candidates introduced the idea of a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants only if they serve in the military, Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., submitted the Adjusted Residency for Military Service (ARMS) Act to the House.


Immigrant advocates across the country have rejected as unfair the premise that illegal immigrant youth should have no alternative other than to put their lives on the line in order to gain citizenship.


What’s really unfair is that such a program would not provide a legitimate pathway for a large proportion of the young immigrants who want the opportunity—and it could have a negative impact on our armed forces.


“Rivera’s bill is a cruel joke,” said Margaret Stock, an Alaska-based immigration lawyer, former professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and supporter of the full DREAM Act. “Rivera gives them nine months to enlist, and the only thing I can think of is that he doesn’t know anything about the military cycle.”


Stock told me that an eligible immigrant would have to be extremely lucky to meet the requirements—maintain residence for the past five consecutive years, show intent to enlist in a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces and demonstrate “good moral conduct”—and then actually get into the military.


“On Oct. 1, a whole bunch of slots are available, but it depends on the economy—when it’s bad, there are fewer and they fill up right away. For instance, right now there are no slots left in the Army until next October,” Stock told me. “People are going to pay a ton of money to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services in upfront fees and adjustment of status fees, have nine months to get enlisted and then once that time runs out and they’ve failed to enlist because there aren’t any slots, they’ll become illegal immigrants again.”


Stock explained that in addition to the high demand for military openings and the expected drawdown of troops, few positions are available to noncitizens due to national security considerations.


“Potentially hundreds of thousands of people will want to try to enlist, but the jobs they’ll be able to do will be low-class jobs. The numbers don’t match up. The U.S. Army, let alone the Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps, don’t need an unlimited supply of people without citizenship,” she said.


Then there are the physical and cultural aspects to joining the military.


Stock notes that a person needs to be in excellent physical and mental condition to be accepted into the military. This brings up the question of what portion of these young people would be fit to serve—many of them have grown up in poverty and, if they are Latino, are likelier than others to be overweight and have respiratory medical conditions or emotional issues due to the stress of living in the country illegally during a time of high deportations.


And would Latino parents, with strict ideas about traditional female roles, even let their daughters try to enlist?


But most alarming is that such an opportunity—while it might be welcome to those willing to do nearly anything for a chance at citizenship—would fundamentally challenge the notion of the volunteer military.


“It turns the concept of an all-volunteer force on its head,” said Stock. “This would be sort of a return to a draft for desperate people who don’t have any other options. If you run the numbers, those paying for the privilege of joining the military will essentially be playing the lottery. It might be a funnel for a very few, very lucky people who will get to enlist, but it would create chaos and a lot of heartbreak.”


A military-only DREAM Act might seem reasonable on its face, but the details sound more like a nightmarish bait-and-switch for desperate young people. It’s an idea that has been considered and rejected before—it should be left for dead once again.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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