Durbin: Defense Department Misses Opportunity To Make Armed Forces More Diverse and Inclusive

Department's limited enlistment of Dreamers doesn't go far enough

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] - U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today said that the Department of Defense’s decision to permit military enlistment of immigrant students known as Dreamers only in very limited circumstances is a missed opportunity.  The Defense Department announced today that it will allow Dreamers who qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to enlist in the Armed Forces, but only through the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) pilot program.  At best a handful of DACA recipients will be able to enlist through MAVNI because the program is very small (an annual cap of 1500 enlistees) and specialized (enlistees must be a part of certain medical professions or speak certain languages, not including Spanish).

It has been over a year since the Senate passed comprehensive immigration legislation on a strong bipartisan vote of 68-32.  The Senate bill includes Durbin's DREAM Act and would, among other things, allow Dreamers to enlist in the military. The House has failed to act on this legislation.  However, the Defense Department has the authority under existing law to authorize the enlistment of non-citizens when it is “vital to the national interest.”  This determination is entirely in the discretion of the Defense Department.  Enlisting Dreamers is “vital to the national interest” because it would make the Armed Forces more diverse and inclusive, and it would allow the Armed Forces to access a well-qualified, educated, homegrown talent pool.

“This is a missed opportunity by the Defense Department, which clearly has the legal authority to authorize the enlistment of Dreamers,” said Durbin.  “These young men and women are prepared to serve our country. Many have completed ROTC programs and dream of the day when they can volunteer to be part of our great military. Merely allowing Dreamers to enlist through the very limited MAVNI program does not go nearly far enough and deprives our military of access to a well-qualified, educated, homegrown talent pool.  This decision falls short of what our nation needs and these young men and women are prepared to give.”

As Chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the military and intelligence community, Durbin held a hearing on May 19, 2014 to examine the benefits to the Armed Forces of enlisting DACA recipients. 

Durbin has repeatedly urged the Defense Department to authorize military enlistment for Dreamers, most recently in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that was also signed by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ). 

Though the Armed Forces are reducing their size, they still need to enlist tens of thousands of well-qualified recruits every year in order to maintain the strongest and most respected military force in the world.  The military will face challenges in the future in recruiting qualified young people to serve.  According to the Department of Defense, almost 75 percent of the country’s young people today are not qualified for military service, mostly due to weight and medical conditions.

DACA gives a select group of young immigrants temporary legal status in the United States.  To be eligible, an individual must have entered the United States as a child; graduated from secondary school, obtained a general equivalency degree, or be currently enrolled in school; and not have a serious criminal record.  Individuals must also be thoroughly vetted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Many recipients hold degrees in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) or possess other skills needed for the complex tasks performed by the military.  In addition, many participate in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC).  So far, more than 600,000 individuals have received DACA, coming out of the shadows to live and work legally in the country they call home.