The Pentagon is speeding up its recruitment of illegal immigrants in a program that fast-tracks them to U.S. citizenship, as Congress debates allowing the military to do so.
Since January, the Pentagon has enlisted 81 illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and qualify for President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to figures provided by the Army on Thursday.
Between January and April 8, only 43 had been enlisted, an Army spokesman said.
Since then, at least 38 more recruits have signed up.
But in Congress, members are debating whether illegal immigrants should lawfully be allowed to join the armed forces.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine veteran and son of Hispanic immigrants, inserted a provision in the 2016 defense policy bill that would encourage the Defense secretary to consider qualified illegal immigrants as "vital to the national interest."
The House is scheduled to debate the bill next week, but some House Republicans, led by Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksDemocrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems eye legislative deal by the end of the week Report: Rally organizers say GOP lawmakers worked on Jan. 6 protests MORE (Ala.), are trying to strip the provision, arguing it endangers the measure's passage.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said he will propose an amendment during consideration of the bill to remove the provision if it has not already happened by then.
In the meantime, more DACA participants could be recruited through a Pentagon program known as the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI.
That program was created for legal immigrants with medical training or critical language skills deemed vital to the national security, according to its creator, retired Lt. Col. Margaret Stock.
The MAVNI program stalled last year after the Pentagon made DACA participants eligible in September, since the program was not designed to accept people without legal documents.
This year, the Pentagon expanded the number of slots available from 1,500 to 3,000, and is slated to expand that number to 5,000 in October.
Army spokesman Wayne Hall said the 81 MAVNI enlistees have signed enlistment contracts but are not yet officially in the Army.
He said they will have to complete a "very thorough" background check and not begin basic training until that process is complete.
He also said the expansion of the MAVNI program was needed to fill the Army's ranks with "highly qualified soldiers who fill critical shortages."
He said that, so far, none of the new enlistees has applied under the "health care professional category" of the program.
-- Updated on May 8 at 6:28 a.m.