Immigrants have served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War. Today, about 35,000 non-citizens serve in the military. Our military must have soldiers and commanders that can adapt to a changing and complex world. "Dreamers" come from diverse backgrounds and have experiences with skills — computer science, engineering, law — that are vital to the national interest. With legislation stuck in Congress, it's time to update Defense Department policy to ensure our military continues to be the strongest force in the world.
The president has congressional authority to allow the enlistment of Dreamers with deferred-action status. Members of Congress from both parties have gone on record to support allowing Dreamers to serve in the military. With their diverse skill sets and backgrounds, it is no surprise Republican Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsSessions: 'I can be supportive' of Trump's immigration plans Hard-liners shrug off Trump’s softer tone on immigration Trump vows to protect jobs, wages for Hispanic voters MORE (Ala.) approved the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants to serve in the military and put themselves on a path to citizenship, calling it a "fine program."
Indeed, military experts have testified that a qualified, diverse military force educated and trained to command the United States' diverse enlisted ranks is vital to the military's ability to fulfill its principal mission to provide national security.
In our democracy, the strength of the military depends on the trust of the American people, and the United States is increasingly diverse. With the move to an all-volunteer force, the need for our armed forces to include all Americans, including Dreamers, as our future soldiers and officers takes on added urgency.
James Langdon, who served as a member of former President George W. Bush's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, placed a premium on experience. Langdon stressed that there is overwhelming consensus that the best soldiers and officers were those who had accumulated a broad range of diverse and enlightening experience prior to joining government service. With their accumulated perspectives, they could engage with a broader range of people.
Modern warfare requires more than directly engaging the enemy in the battlefield. Dreamers come from diverse backgrounds and often bring language skills and familiarity with other cultures and customs that will enhance unit effectiveness in intelligence-gathering and building relationships with global populations.
There is precedent that highlights the benefits of allowing talented immigrants to serve in uniform. Titled "Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest," this program allowed certain non-citizens who were legally present in the United States to join the military provided they possess healthcare expertise or knowledge in strategic languages.
Recognizing the value in service from Dreamers who wish to serve their adoptive home, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) called on the president to take action to allow Dreamers to serve in the military. "The Department of Defense has the ability to do this today, and if the military takes the position that they want the best and brightest, and these men and women meet the criteria, then I think it's something that the Department of Defense is willing and able to do," Denham said.
Legislative proposals crafted to allow enlistment of Dreamers have been shelved: The ENLIST Act was blocked from going to a vote as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act by House GOP leadership, and the Military Enlistment Opportunity Act was prevented from being brought to a vote, also by House GOP leadership. With legislation off the table, there's only one avenue of change left to press: the president.
Service nowadays is something that has not been a central feature of our country: Fewer than 1 percent of Americans currently serve in the U.S. military. Former U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently made the case for universal national service because "talk of service is largely confined to buoyant commencement ceremonies. And too often it is just that: talk." While other Dreamers are serving their country as teachers or advocates, there are also many ready to answer the call for military service to the country we call home. It's time to update Defense Department policy and for our political leaders to act to ensure our military is equipped to meet the complex challenges of this new century.
Vargas is co-director of the DREAM Action Coalition and a national activist for immigration reform.