I’m a military veteran and the son of immigrants.
My parents left India because knew they could earn more opportunities in the United States. They became American citizens and frequently told me that America’s values of freedom and diversity must be cherished but also protected. I joined the U.S. Navy to help safeguard what makes America great.
My story is hardly unique: Immigrants and their children historically have served in the military in great numbers. But too many of our country’s young people are unable to join because they’re undocumented. At the same time, not enough young Americans meet the criteria of joining the military. By passing the Dream Act, Congress will enlarge the pool of eligible recruits, enable Dreamers to join the military, and enhance our national security.
Immigrants fill the U.S. military’s ranks. Some 40,000 immigrants currently serve in America’s active and reserve forces, and about 5,000 noncitizens join every year, according to new report by the National Immigration Forum. More than 500,000 veterans weren’t born in the U.S. — a tradition that dates back to America’s earliest years. For example, Irish immigrants fought in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. In World War I, close to 500,000 military personnel were immigrants, comprising 18% of the total fighting force.
Indeed, immigrants have demonstrated courage: 20% of Medal of Honor recipients are foreign born. They’ve also reached the highest levels of the armed forces: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General John Shalikashvili was born in Poland. When I was deployed in the Middle East, I served alongside immigrants and their children, and I know first-hand that they put America first.
Yet the military faces a challenge: it needs more recruits. Only 13% of 17- to 24- year-olds meet the criteria of joining. They’re ineligible because of obesity, education, criminal records, and medical restrictions, among other reasons. Remarkably, just 1% of this population is both eligible and interested in joining the armed services. “The quality of people willing to serve has been declining rapidly,” said Major General Allen Batschelet, who ran the Army Recruiting Command. This talent shortfall costs taxpayers. The army spent $300 million in bonuses and advertisements to recruit more soldiers to meet its overall quota.
Immigrants and noncitizens have skills that can bolster our defense forces.
The military needs more and better talent. Immigrants and noncitizens have skills that can bolster our defense forces, and they also have a lower attrition rate than citizens, according to the Center for Naval Analyses. “For love of their new country, generations of immigrants have served in America’s armed forces. These days, in order to keep our nation safe, our military needs the talents and skills of the foreign born more than ever,” Ali Noorani, author of There Goes the Neighborhood, has noted.
In 2009, the military introduced the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which allowed immigrants and some noncitizens to join if they possess special medical or language skills. Almost 11,000 soliders have participated in this program, which may be stopped altogether due to security concerns. “It’s terrible. You trusted the Army, who delayed the process, and now they’re going to cancel your contract and have you deported,” said Margaret Stock, a retired Army officer who helped implement MAVNI.
America’s military should not be subject to these conditions. The MAVNI program should be fully restored. In addition, Congress must pass the Dream Act, which will significantly increase the eligible pool of new recruits.
“As long as I had the opportunity to put on the uniform and serve my country, that’s all I cared about. To me it was a no-brainer. This country is my home. It’s all I’ve known for the past 20 years. It’s where my wife and daughter are…I hope this legislation moves forward and people see the benefits immigrants bring to the military,” said Erick Ruiz, a DACA recipient who also participated in MAVNI.
More than 70,000 Dreamers might join the military as a way of gaining permanent legal status, per one report. Which means they would voluntarily put their lives on the line for U.S. citizenship. When the Dream Act was under consideration in 2010, General Colin Powell and Bob Gates, former Secretary of Defense, were among several high-ranking officials voicing support. The Dream Act already mandates strict criteria, such as checking an applicant’s criminal background and making sure they demonstrate upstanding character. The 2017 version of the Dream Act would allow Dreamers to become citizens after serving in the military for a minimum of two years.
Passing the Dream Act also would send a powerful message to both our allies and enemies: America’s armed services are filled with young, talented, motivated, and skilled recruits. I would be proud to serve alongside the Dreamers.
Kabir Sehgal is a U.S. Navy veteran and co-author of Home: Where Everyone Is Welcome (Grand Central Publishing, 2017)