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The Pentagon is letting some unauthorized immigrants join the military

A military naturalization ceremony.
A military naturalization ceremony.

The Pentagon has approved a new plan to let certain unauthorized immigrants join the military.

Currently, young unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the country before the age of 16 are eligible for protection from deportation and work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which President Obama announced in June 2012. However, receiving deferred action didn't make immigrants eligible to enlist in military.

On Friday, however, the government said it would expand an existing program, which allows legal immigrants to enlist if they have particular language skills or medical training, to DACA recipients.

Only 3,000 legal immigrants have enlisted under the program, called Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI), in five years. And it's difficult for unauthorized immigrants to afford tuition for medical school, which would limit the number who could qualify on medical grounds.

Furthermore, the military still has rules in place that prevent anyone from enlisting — even US citizens — who have relatives who are unauthorized immigrants. If the military isn't planning to change that policy, it might be extremely difficult for unauthorized immigrants (most of whom have parents who are also unauthorized)to sign up.

So it's not clear how many unauthorized immigrants will qualify for the program even if it's theoretically open to them. Any immigrants who did qualify, however, would be eligible for expedited citizenship — just like any other legal immigrant who serves in the military.

Earlier in May, the House of Representatives considered voting on a bill that would allow more unauthorized immigrants to enlist in the military — but House leadership ultimately decided not to bring the bill for a vote. Now, it looks like the administration is acting on its own. (The Obama administration hasn't formally announced the change yet, but the Huffington Post found out about the plan.) However, the change the administration is making applies to many fewer immigrants than the bill the House was considering — so the White House isn't preempting Congress from acting.