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Bill allowing immigrants here illegally to serve in military splits GOP

Brian Huerta Hopes For ENLIST Act

L.E. Baskow

Brian Huerta of Las Vegas would love to join the Marines, but is held back by his immigration status. Right now Congress is debating the ENLIST Act, a bill that would allow immigrants in the country illegally to join the armed forces and then earn residency.

Click to enlarge photo

Brian Huerta speaks on immigration and the military during the Nevadans for the Common Good second community convention at the Cashman Center on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. He is with the All Saints Episcopal Church.

By now, Brian Huerta thought he would be out of Marines basic training and settling in with his unit, combat training with his M-16, learning navigation and technical skills, building trust with his comrades and getting used to life in the military.

But Huerta, 19, instead is cleaning and preparing dental instruments, booking appointments and imploring teenagers to start flossing. He’s a dental assistant.

His freshman year at Clark High School, Huerta joined the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program and quickly decided the military was the future he wanted.

He loved the discipline, and he excelled at the fitness exams. After he graduated in 2012, he went straight to the Marines recruiting office and asked to enlist.

“They asked me for a Social Security number, and I said I didn’t have one. Then they asked for my green card, and I didn’t have one,” Huerta said.

Huerta’s parents brought him from Guadalajara, Mexico, to the United States, settling immediately in Las Vegas, when he was 2 weeks old. They came illegally, but Huerta grew up never knowing he was not a resident of the United States.

Huerta has received a work permit through the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, which allowed him to take the job at the dentist’s office and get a driver’s license. The two-year permit, though, does not allow him to join the military.

So, Huerta is waiting patiently, confident that a solution will arise eventually from Washington, D.C. — something like the ENLIST Act.

Proposal creates rift

The legislation, proposed most recently by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., would allow immigrants who came to the United States before their 15th birthday and lack legal residency to join the military, adjust their status and eventually apply for citizenship. (ENLIST is an acronym for Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training.)

Denham tried to tack the legislation on as an amendment to the House defense policy bill, but GOP leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, objected to including it in the larger bill. Boehner did say it was possible he would allow a vote in the House on the ENLIST Act alone but has not made a firm decision.

“If a kid who’s brought here by his or her parents unbeknownst to that child, has never lived anywhere else or remembers living anywhere else, and wants to serve in our military, (he) should be able to do so,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Thursday while addressing the House. “And it’s my position that that child should have a path to citizenship after that service.”

But not everyone in the GOP agrees, including the staunch opponent of the Senate’s sweeping immigration reform package, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.

“This bill … would put out the advertisement that says, sneak into America, sneak into the military and that’s going to be the most expeditious path to American citizenship and the whole smorgasbord of benefits that come from American citizenship,” King said in a floor speech in April. “Citizenship must be precious, not handed out like candy in a parade.”

The way the act is currently written, immigrants would have to prove they were in the United States before Dec. 31, 2011.

U.S. legal permanent residents — essentially, immigrants with green cards — have been eligible to enlist in the military since the Revolutionary War. Huerta’s two-year work permit does not give him legal permanent resident status.

Nearly half of those who joined the Army in the 1840s were immigrants, and more than 660,000 military veterans became citizens through naturalization between 1862 and 2000. Currently, approximately 35,000 noncitizens serve in the U.S. military and around 8,000 enlist each year.

A research brief from the Center Naval Analyses found that immigrant recruits are more likely to stick in the military.

“Noncitizens, once they have joined the military, are also far more likely to complete their enlistment obligations successfully than their U.S.-born counterparts. Thirty-six month attrition rates for noncitizens are between 9 and 20 percentage points lower than those for white citizens, the largest demographic group in the military,” the research brief states.

Opponents of the ENLIST Act call the bill “amnesty” for lawbreakers and point to the Pentagon’s plans to drastically reduce the size of the military in the coming years as sign that more troops are not needed.

Waiting to serve

Huerta did not know he was not a legal resident until his parents told him that day he returned from the recruiting office.

He was crushed. While his friends from the ROTC program joined the armed forces, he felt “left behind” and deflected their questions about why he had not enlisted.

“I loved the discipline I received in the ROTC,” Huerta said. “It kept me focused on work and getting good grades, because they won’t let you participate if your grades slip. I saw kids in middle school get mixed up in drugs and get in trouble. My parents sacrificed so much to give me more opportunities. I had to stay on the right track. I couldn’t let them down.”

Shortly after Huerta discovered he could not join the Marines, President Barack Obama announced the deferred action program, which allows immigrants without legal residency who came to the United States at a young age to receive a temporary work permit.

Huerta got certified as a dental assistant and is biding his time.

“I let my parents watch what’s going on in Washington,” Huerta said. “I try not to worry about it too much. I’m just being patient. I have faith something will happen.”

Huerta, whose baby face belies his measured, mature demeanor, has relied on his faith to help him stay positive.

He and his family have long been members of All Saints Episcopal Church, and Father Bernardo Iniesta, himself an immigrant from Mexico, has counseled Huerta and others like him.

“Brian and his family have worked very hard,” Iniesta said. “They do not have much, but they have built a life for themselves here and Brian did very well in school. It is his dream to join the Marines, and he is an exceptional, very talented young man who deserves the opportunity. He wants to serve his country.”

For now Huerta is working at the dentist’s office and helping his father with his automobile upholstery and interior business. He has shared his story publicly, nudged by Iniesta, speaking at a meeting of the interfaith social advocacy group Nevadans for the Common Good on May 13.

“I’m not alone,” Huerta said. “There are so many young talented people here, and they just want the opportunity to serve and give back to the only country they know.”

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