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Congress won’t help unauthorized immigrants join the military. But the military can.

This sort of naturalization ceremony could be happening more often.
This sort of naturalization ceremony could be happening more often.
Chris Maddaloni/CQ-Roll Call

For a moment last week, it actually looked like the House of Representatives might take a vote on an immigration bill — something they've successfully avoided doing since the beginning of this Congress.

The bill, called the ENLIST Act, would allow unauthorized immigrants who want to serve in the military to enlist — and would give them green cards once they did. It was written by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), with 26 Republicans signed on to cosponsor. Denham was lobbying Republican leadership to let him put the ENLIST Act up as an amendment to a defense authorization bill.

It didn't take long for that idea to get crushed — Majority Leader Eric Cantor vetoed Denham's idea. But just like House Republican inaction on broader immigration reform has led the Obama administration to consider making administrative reforms to help unauthorized immigrants, there are two things the military could do without Congress to open enlistment up to immigrants and their families:

Expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to include enlistees. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, temporarily protects young unauthorized immigrants (DREAMers) from deportation and allows them to work legally in the US if they meet certain requirements. But it doesn't allow DACA recipients to enlist in the military. That's in the Department of Defense's power to change.

Stop rejecting recruits because they have relatives who are unauthorized. Last year, the Obama administration allowed relatives of current or former members of the armed forces to apply for another form of protection from deportation, called "parole-in-place."

At the same time, the military passed new regulations that undermined that policy entirely — preventing US citizens from enlisting at all if they had unauthorized-immigrant spouses or kids. According to the Wall Street Journal, one would-be recruit was told by her recruiter that she'd have to divorce her husband to enlist. When members of Congress asked senior military officers about the policy, the military said they'd be initiating a 60-day review. That review is still ongoing, five months later.

According to Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), the Department of Defense is currently reviewing both of these policies, and should have its results ready soon. That's also what the Department of Homeland Security is saying about its broader review of deportation policies. The question that both face is: how soon is soon?


UPDATE: Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), the author of the ENLIST Act, says he'd "welcome" executive actions like these that would allow unauthorized immigrants to serve in the military: