Infusing the U.S. military with ideological priorities and yoking our immigration laws to political needs are not unfamiliar activities for Democrats. Rarely, however, do liberals try to do both at once — with support from Republicans.
So it is with the Enlist Act, a proposal to enable immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children — “DREAMers” — to sign up for the U.S. military, giving them formal legal status and the opportunity, it seems, to apply immediately for citizenship. Representatives Mike Coffman (R., Colo.) and Jeff Denham (R., Calif.) have proposed versions of this measure in the House, while others have also suggested it could be added as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, the biannual military-spending bill. Speaker John Boehner has said it can’t be an amendment but has left the door open to a vote on the bill.
The idea demeans our troops and a number of legal immigrants. Thousands of officers and enlisted troops are being essentially laid off by all branches of the U.S. military, as it shrinks over the next several years. The military forces are hardly in need of recruits. Standards were lowered during the Bush years because recruits were needed; now that they have been tightened again, Democrats would like to lower them as a political ploy.
Meanwhile, immigrants who aren’t permanent residents — those on temporary visas and even illegal immigrants — can join the military and be placed on an immediate path to citizenship if the secretary of defense determines that it is vital to the national interest. Formal programs to recruit temporary immigrants with special skills already exist; beneficiaries of the Enlist Act would get the same privileges without having to show comparable accomplishments.
If there’s a DREAMer out there who speaks Pashto or Somali and can pass a background check, in other words, we don’t need an act of Congress to sign him up. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested the Pentagon use that power to implement the Enlist Act without Congress: Secretary Hagel, at President Obama’s direction, could determine that anyone eligible for the DREAM Act–by–fiat is now eligible to enlist. This, of course, would make a mockery of the Pentagon’s special authority, making the unilateral plan an even worse idea for the military.
Ultimately, because the military’s standards aren’t going to be lowered except in that crucial category of legal residency, the number of illegal aliens eligible for a plan like the Enlist Act will be extremely small. They have to hit a certain score on the military tests, pass a background check, be free of most criminal convictions, etc. This isn’t an important substantive step toward a general amnesty.
But it is a surreptitious political move. If the House were to pass either the Enlist Act or an equivalent amendment, Majority Leader Harry Reid could expand it into a more general legislative amnesty for DREAMers. Speaker Boehner hasn’t been sufficiently reliable in condemning these tactics or sufficiently aggressive in exposing them. A unilateral maneuver such as Senator Durbin wants is just one more marginal blow against our immigration laws. Either way, advocates of the Enlist Act claim to respect members of our armed forces and to make our immigration laws more sensible while doing quite the opposite.