Senate bill renews effort to enlist non-citizens in the military
(U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. Ken Scar)

Senate bill renews effort to enlist non-citizens in the military

Efforts to widen a pathway for non-citizens to join the U.S. military are being reignited with a new Senate bill aimed at easing recruitment troubles in the armed forces.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is leading a renewed push to allow the Defense Department to enlist people who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, including those who entered the country unlawfully as children and are now protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

Residents who have temporary protected status and individuals who have an approved petition for an immigrant visa would also be eligible to serve in the military under the legislation as long as they meet the qualifications of the service branch.

“Allowing highly qualified, long-time residents of our great nation the opportunity to serve the country they’ve come to love is a commonsense way to give the services better access to talented potential recruits and improve our military’s readiness in the process,” said Duckworth, a former Army Black Hawk pilot and Iraq War veteran.

Non-citizens who want to join the military must have a permanent resident card, also known as a green card, and be able to speak, read and write fluently in English.

In 2008, the Defense Department began an initiative to expand recruitment to certain non-citizens with medical, foreign language and other in-demand skills but the controversial program, called the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, was suspended in 2017.

In the years since, nearly all the service branches have seen the gap between their recruitment goals and enlistment numbers widen. Only about 24% to 27% of young people ages 18 to 24 meet the requirements to serve and even fewer have the desire to enlist.

“Our military services are facing unprecedented challenges meeting their recruitment goals — in part due to a historically small pool of eligible recruits,” Duckworth said.

She said the bill, named the Enlist Act, would expand the pool of candidates and help the military fill its dwindling ranks. It would also give individuals who enlist under the proposed legislation an opportunity to become naturalized citizens, as non-citizen service members are now able to do through an existing process.

Previous legislative proposals to open the military to non-citizens and “Dreamers,” as young people impacted by DACA are often called, have failed to gain traction in Congress. But Duckworth said she is confident her latest effort, which also has been filed as an amendment to the Senate's version of the annual defense policy bill, could make progress.

She told reporters that she developed the bill with significant input from Republicans and has conferred with the leaders of Senate committees charged with overseeing the judiciary, homeland security and the armed services.

“The majority on each of those is very supportive and we’ve had very positive feedback from some of the minority staff as well,” Duckworth said. “So we’re continuing to work through it.”

Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, the nominee to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also expressed support for the measure during his confirmation hearing in the Senate last week.

“I do think about those who love this country, want to serve, want to raise their right hand and take an oath of office or an oath of enlistment,” he said. “If they want to serve and meet the qualifications, I think they all should be provided the opportunity.”