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Bill would allow ‘Dreamers’ to join the military, become citizens

Rep. Ruben Gallego says the measure could harness immigrant talent and help address military recruitment shortfalls

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., conducts a House Armed Services subcommittee markup in June.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., conducts a House Armed Services subcommittee markup in June. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Ruben Gallego unveiled legislation Thursday that would allow participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to enlist in the military and ultimately obtain a pathway to citizenship.

There is currently no way to join the military for the roughly 600,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children who receive protection through the Obama-era DACA program.

The bill from the Arizona Democrat and Marine veteran would allow those recipients to join the military and ultimately apply for lawful permanent residency if they serve honorably.

“We need more talented people in the military,” said Gallego, who serves on the House Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees. “These are a population of people that are already serving their country in different ways. They’re very patriotic.”

Like most immigration bills, Gallego’s measure is unlikely to get a vote as a stand-alone measure, but it could be wrapped into the annual must-pass defense policy bill. A similar proposal has been attached to that defense bill before but was stripped out in negotiations.

“While it is partly an immigration issue, it’s also a national security issue, especially right now,” Gallego said.

The government did begin a program in 2008 that recruited noncitizens to the military, but it was suspended in 2017. That program, called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, has been the subject of political controversy and is not accepting new recruits while the military processes backlogged applications.

The new bill could also help the military fix its current recruitment shortfalls, Gallego said. In July, the Army’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Joseph M. Martin, told a House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing that the regular Army is poised to fall nearly 19,000 soldiers short of its staffing target in fiscal 2022.

The shortfall stems from a variety of factors, including a challenging post-pandemic recruiting environment, signs of declining morale among those currently in the service, and a population of potential recruits that has shrunk because of factors such as obesity and lack of education.

The number of participants in the DACA program has also been curbed by court challenges. In 2021, a court blocked the program from accepting new applications, although current participants can still renew their protection.

Gallego’s legislation comes as the 117th Congress nears its end without passing any significant immigration bills.

Democrats tried and failed to include sweeping immigration changes in their party-line budget reconciliation bill but ran into parliamentary issues. Republicans have largely been resistant to bipartisan negotiations amid record-high border crossings.

Meanwhile, a House-passed bill to provide a pathway to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers” more broadly has not been considered in the Senate.

John M. Donnelly contributed reporting.

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