Lawmakers meeting with military recruiting officials on Thursday said they support efforts to open up the armed services to men and women who were brought into the country illegally, but as children.
Reps. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and Jeff Denham, R-Calif., both have bills that would give this group of men and women a chance to serve and go on to legal permanent residency and apply for citizenship, the Congressmen testified at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee's military personnel panel.
"I'm worried that the future pool of recruits may not be able to maintain the elite standards that we've established," said Coffman, a former Army soldier and Marine Corps officer. "Factors such as an improving economy, cultural changes, and how a generation views the military service, or when our nation is engaged in conflicts that, quite frankly, lack popular support – all these factors can contribute to the numbers of qualified applicants applying to be in our military."
Denham noted that many military age men and women arrived in the U.S. as kids, through no fault of their own.
"For the many thousands of undocumented immigrants who graduated from our public and private high schools each year, military service would offer an avenue for them to serve the United States and earn a legal status in the country they love," said Denham, who served 16 years in the Air Force and Air Force Reserve.
Denham said he joined the military at 17, while still in high school. In the military he met a number of Filipinos who joined up and later became citizens.
He introduced legislation in June 2013 that would allow those brought into the U.S. illegally before they were age 15 to enlist in the military, as long as they were otherwise qualified. Through completing honorable service they would be made legal permanent residents, under the bill, H.R. 2377.
Coffman's bill -- H.R. 435 -- also opens the recruiting offices to the same group, but has tighter requirements. For example, an individual would have to be in documented status for at least two years before enlisting or be made temporarily lawful by being approved for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status by the Department of Homeland Security.
The advantage to Coffman's bill is that it would mean the applicant has already been screened by DHS for any criminal background or terrorist connections prior to entering the military.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, a leading expert in immigration law, wrote a letter to Coffman dated Jan. 14 endorsing his bill, H.R. 435.
Stock says in her letter that Coffman's bill will expand the pool of potential recruits without burdening the services and DHS with extensive background checks on all applicants. Another problem she has with Denham's bill as currently written is that it rewards illegality, allows criminal aliens to enlist, and is likely to promote fraud.
Both bills have bipartisan support. Denham's bill currently counts 12 Republican and 11 Democrat co-sponsors. Coffman's bill has 15 co-sponsors, including 10 Democrats and five Republican.
Denham told Military.com that the language of Coffman's bill is different, "but it has the same goal as mine," to expand the recruiting pool and open up the military to people who entered the U.S. as children.
"I expect [my bill] to be part of the major debate ... and part of final legislation," he said.
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