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Veteran Brett Hunt reads the story of Howard Bailey (picture on screen), a veteran who was deported to Jamaica.

Military vets panel backs enlistment of undocumented immigrants

by Nicole Blanchard
May 27, 2014

A panel of veterans spoke in support of military-based immigration reform at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library on Tuesday. At the forefront of the group’s discussion was the  ENLIST Act,  a piece of federal legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children to join the armed forces.

Currently all non-citizen enlistees must be in the U.S. legally.

In addition, the panel expressed support for Obama administration-backed comprehensive immigration reform bill H.R. 15, which has been stalled in the House since late March.

“The immigrant community has a long and proud history of service to this country,” said Illinois Assistant Director of Veterans Affairs  Rodrigo Garcia, a panel member and Marine Corps veteran. “Those who have immigrated to America have sometimes paid the ultimate price to defend her honor.”

Ultimately, an honorable discharge from the military would offer those individuals the opportunity to apply for long-term permanent residency, eventually leading to a path to full citizenship.

Retired Army Col. Kevin Kelley, Junior ROTC director of military instruction for the Chicago Public Schools, oversees roughly 11,000 JROTC students. He estimated that 10 percent of those students are undocumented, and many more undocumented students approach him with hopes of joining the military in the future.

The ENLIST Act, or “Encourage New Legalized Immigrants to Start Training," has been inactive in the House for almost a year, but principal sponsor U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) has lobbied for it to be absorbed into the National Defense Reauthorization bill, sidestepping the apprehension many Republicans show toward comprehensive immigration reform. The House Rules Committee rejected the amendment on May 20, but Denham hopes to push it as a stand-alone bill.

Panelists agreed that current immigration laws are keeping “physically, academically and mentally capable recruits” from joining the service, but said the problems with immigration don’t end there.

“What’s wrong with our immigration system is much larger than what could be taken on with the ENLIST bill,” said Brett Hunt, an Army veteran and senior vice president of the Arizona branch of Strategies 360, a business and public policy consulting firm.

Hunt said all veterans know someone who has been affected by immigration laws, and urged them to contact local representatives to start a grassroots effort toward reform.

H.R. 15 is currently waiting on 27 signatures to discharge from committees and move forward in the House.