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House Armed Services Committee Affirms Department of Defense Authority to Enlist DREAMers

April 27, 2016
Press Release

Washington, DC – Tonight, in a victory for immigrant rights, the House Armed Services Committee voted to affirm the Secretary of Defense’s broad discretionary power to enable immigrants – including DREAMers – to enlist in the military.

The vote came after Rep. Ruben Gallego introduced the “Enable DREAMers to Serve in Uniform” amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment would have required the Secretary of Defense to establish a process to permit the enlistment of beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA-eligible individuals receive work permits, but are generally barred from serving in the Armed Forces.

In a surprising twist, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry then offered an amendment in the nature of a substitute confirming that the Secretary of Defense has the authority to enlist whomever he would like if it would advance the national interest – including DREAMers and other immigrants. The amendment was approved by voice vote and confirms the Secretary’s legal ability to permit DREAMers to serve our nation in uniform.

Rep. Gallego introduced a very similar amendment during last year’s NDAA markup, which was approved by a bipartisan majority of the House Armed Services Committee. However, Republicans later succeeded in stripping out this critical provision on the House floor.

Rep. Gallego issued the following statement:

“The passage of this amendment is a victory for DREAMers and other immigrants who wish to serve our country in uniform. I fought in Iraq, and I know that on the battlefield what matters isn’t your immigration status, it’s whether you have the right skills and character. I’m glad that Republicans are finally realizing this. I call on Secretary Carter to use this legal authority and begin enlisting DREAMers in our military as soon as possible.”

Rep. Gallego delivered the following prepared remarks when introducing his amendment:

Mr. Chairman,

Immigrants have been fighting in America’s Armed Forces since the founding of the Republic. 

Many of them didn’t come here legally.  Yet, in countless cases, we still allowed them to enlist because for most of our history, your patriotism was more important than your papers. 

Mr. Chairman, I want to tell you about a great American named Joseph Medina. 

Joseph was born in Mexico 101 years ago.  When he was four years old, his parents moved to Minnesota to work in the soybean fields.  However, it wasn’t until he joined the Army that Joseph learned he was undocumented. 

In 2016, despite the grave threats our nation faces, DREAMers like Joseph who want to serve our nation in uniform are turned away from recruiting offices across the country.  In contrast, back in 1944, all it took was for Joseph to drive up to Canada one afternoon, reenter the United States and return to his unit. 

Joseph went on to fight with distinction in the Pacific theatre under legendary General George MacArthur.    

Two years ago, at the grand age of 99, he came all the way here to Washington to plead with Congress to give today’s undocumented young people the same opportunity he had to fight for our country. 

Speaking on the National Mall, he talked about the love for America that motivated him to enlist – the sincere patriotism that he shares with millions of undocumented youth who grow up in our communities, pledge allegiance to our flag and want to give back to our county. 

Mr. Chairman, my amendment would enable DREAMers to do just that.  It would require the Secretary of Defense to establish a process to permit the enlistment of beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA. 

DOD already has this authority pursuant to Section 504 of Title 10 and the Department is currently allowing a small number of undocumented young people who possess special language and technical skills to join our Armed Forces. 

Unfortunately, in a few moments, opponents of my amendment will argue that this is an immigration issue and that it shouldn’t be considered in the context of the annual defense bill. 

They will even claim that my amendment amounts to a “backdoor amnesty.” 

That’s nonsense, Mr. Chairman. 

The fact is that my amendment is consistent with past precedent.  In 2006, When Congress last acted to revise the rules governing the enlistment of non-citizens, this change was made through the NDAA. 

Moreover, this amendment would have no effect on the immigration status of DACA-recipients or anyone else. 

In closing, when we vote on this amendment later this evening, please consider the long sweep of history and not just the anti-immigrant politics of the present. 

Our military was made stronger in the 1940’s because men like Joseph Medina were allowed to enlist.  And our military will be made stronger in 2016—in this very room—if we vote to give another generation of immigrants the chance to serve.  

Mr. Chairman, the willingness to fight and die in uniform is the purest expression of love for our country.  Please support my amendment and finally give DREAMers who love America the opportunity to enlist in America’s Armed Forces. 

Thank you.  I yield back.