President Obama's executive immigration order would remove a major obstacle currently barring children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants from joining the military, Pentagon officials said Friday.
The existing rules bar enlistment to U.S. citizens who have undocumented family members living in the U.S., said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.
Obama's proposed changes would allow those citizens to join up and also provide avenues of assistance for their undocumented family members to enhance their legal status in the U.S., according to White House and Department of Homeland Security guidelines.
The change was disclosed in an announcement put out by the White House on Obama's address to the nation Thursday in which he announced executive orders that would lift the threat of deportation for an estimated 4.1 million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens.
"To further our military's needs and support recruitment efforts, DHS (Department of Homeland Security) will expand an existing policy to provide relief to spouses and children of U.S. citizens seeking to enlist in the military, consistent with a request made by the Department of Defense," the statement read.
Defense Department officials later said the military services are working with potential recruits with foreign immediate family members. "DoD is working with DHS to evaluate options to enlist individuals with undocumented family members and resolve the family members' status prior to the enlistee entering active duty," the statement said.
A DHS document said that DHS and the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services were working to expand "parole in place," meaning no action would be taken against the "spouses, parents and children of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who seek to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces."
The ultimate effects of the immigration policy changes were impossible to predict, given the potential legal challenges to the executive rders and threatened Republican action to block or defund the changes in Congress, immigration law specialists said.
"It could broaden the pool of potential recruits," said Margaret Stock, an immigration law analyst in Alaska. She also noted that Obama was essentially seeking to change the rules for the military that he put in place.
"It was the Obama administration that created the policy that you couldn't enlist if you had relatives out of status," Stock said. "Obama is trying to put a Band-Aid on it by trying to fix the policy he created. I think it's a very confusing policy."
The program expands the parole-in-place and deferred action programs to cover men and women who "seek to enlist" in the military - including through the delayed entry program - but it's unclear what "seek to enlist" actually means, said Stock, a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. One possible problem is that those who sign up under delayed entry will keep the parole-in-place status even if they decide at the last minute not to go through with the enlistment. Currently, she said, about 10 percent of men and women who sign up under the delayed entry program drop out. "Currently, people can't sign an enlistment contract if their parents, spouses and kids are undocumented, and this policy seemingly tries to address this problem. Unfortunately, unless a program like this is managed carefully, it will lead to fraud," Stock said.
"DoD may need millions of dollars in budget money to deal with the processing of cases of people who 'seek to enlist' but who don't actually end up enlisting," Stock said.
In a conference call with reporters, Edward Alden, an immigration policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the main question is "what is the Republican party going to do with this? We don't know how the Republicans are going to respond."
The Republicans gave an indication Friday when they filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington against Obama's health care law, the Affordable Care Act.
A Republican official told the Associated Press that party leaders are considering amending the suit to include Obama's actions on immigration, a change that would require approval by the GOP-controlled House.
Non-citizens have been serving in the military since the Revolutionary War, according to the Pentagon. More than 92,750 non-citizens have taken the oath of citizenship while serving in the military since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Currently, about 25,000 non-citizens are serving on active duty, or in the National Guard and reserves, and about 5,000 enlist annually, the Pentagon said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com