I enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 17, straight out of high school and eager to dedicate my time to my country. During my service, a number of the men and women I served alongside were Filipinos who had recently become citizens or earned legal status. Their immigration status was never my concern. Instead, I was focused on their dedication to our missions, their willingness to put the unit before themselves, their courage in the face of a threatening enemy, and the love they shared for the same nation I have called home since the day I was born.
My service was in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Restore Hope in Iraq and Somalia, respectively. But veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and countless conflicts throughout our country’s great history have similar stories to share. First-generation immigrants make up a full 5 percent of our active-duty forces, about 65,000 service members.
Last year, during debate of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I introduced an amendment to change military policy by allowing otherwise qualified children brought here before the age of 15 to earn legal status through military service. It would apply to children who grew up here, were educated in our schools, and know of no other country to call home. The amendment would require this group of children, often referred to as “DREAMers,” to serve a full term in whichever branch of the military accepted them and be honorably discharged. It did nothing to alter recruitment or enlistment policies of the military, which are left to the sole discretion of each branch.
I then introduced the very same bill, the ENLIST (Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training) Act, in June of 2013. The ENLIST Act provides an avenue for those who want to perform the ultimate act of patriotism — serving their country — to earn legal status.
Since its introduction, the ENLIST Act has gained 56 co-sponsors — 25 Republicans and 31 Democrats. It has earned the support of many of my colleagues who are also veterans, who have also proudly worn the cloth of our nation side by side with immigrants.
I have had the honor of meeting some of the DREAMers my bill would impact. Alejandro Morales, who arrived in the United States when he was seven months old, is one great example. All his life he has wanted to serve his county by enrolling in the United States Marine Corps. He began preparing during high school at Chicago’s Marine Math and Science Academy, where he was dedicated to junior ROTC and earned the rank of cadet brigadier general.
When I met with Alejandro last month, I asked him why he thought he should be able to serve in our military. He gave me a simple answer, the same answer I would have given when people asked me why I enrolled in the Air Force years ago: that he loves his country and wants to honorably defend it.
I have been vocal about my support for top-to-bottom immigration reform. I believe we need to pass legislation that secures our border, strengthens our economy, and fixes our broken system to create jobs in every district across the country.
The ENLIST Act is not my idea of top-to-bottom reform. It won’t achieve the shared goals of many members of Congress, or of the agricultural, faith-based, and business communities, not to mention Americans nationwide, who support effective immigration reform, knowing that a new law will have the power to generate almost $1 trillion in revenue over the next 20 years and end the struggles of so many families.
Instead, it provides our armed forces with the option to accept the very best and brightest, like Alejandro, regardless of their legal status. It does not mandate that any immigrant, undocumented or otherwise, be able to enlist over an American citizen. It does not require the military to accept any applicant they deem unworthy of the chance to serve. I do not, nor should anyone else outside of the Department of Defense, presume to insist upon which individuals are the most fit recruits.
I hold military service in the highest of esteem. It is a privilege and an honor. Our Armed Forces put their lives, their welfare, and their familial comforts on the line for each of us. My bill would allow DREAMers to have the same opportunity. There is no better way to display love for your country — and these kids have never known any other — than through service in its military.
— Jeff Denham (R.) has represented California’s tenth Congressional District since 2011. He serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure, Agriculture, and Veterans’ Affairs committees. He served in the U.S. Air Force for a combined 16 years of active duty and reserve service. He fought in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Restore Hope in Iraq and Somalia, respectively.