Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday that that he will fight to protect the estimated 800-900 so-called "Dreamers" currently serving on active duty from the possibility of being deported next month.
"We would always stand by one of our own people," Mattis said of the Dreamers in the ranks who could possibly be stripped of their uniforms and deported when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is set to expire on March 5.
At an off-camera session with Pentagon reporters, Mattis said those non-citizens in the military covered by DACA would only face deportation if they had committed a serious felony or if a federal judge signed a deportation order.
Mattis said he had already conferred with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and received assurances that anyone who has enlisted in the military and is waiting to report to boot camp, anyone on active duty or in the active reserves or National Guard, or anyone with an honorable discharge will not be deported even if DACA is allowed to expire on March 5.
At an earlier Pentagon briefing, Dana White, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson said that the status of non-citizens serving in the military was "within the purview" of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
"So we'll work with them" on finding a solution, White said. As for the Dreamers in the ranks, she said "we respect their service and we'll continue to do that."
However, White said "there is a political decision that has to be made" that would allow the Dreamers in the military to continue serving, but Congress and the White House are at an impasse on DACA and overall immigration reform.
White did not immediately have a count of how many of the Dreamers were currently serving in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.
Those covered by DACA now serving in the military are among more than 10,000 non-citizens who joined the ranks under the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program, which can lead to citizenship.
The Dreamers in the military are among an estimated 690,000 non-citizens who were brought illegally to the U.S. as minors.
Under the DACA program put in place by former President Barack Obama, they were allowed to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation, enroll in college, obtain driver's licenses and legally secure jobs.
In September, Trump by executive order rescinded the DACA program and set its expiration date for March 5.
Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to extend the DACA program but only as part of an overall immigration reform package that would include funding for the border wall, and an end to the visa lottery and so-called "chain migration" in which legal residents and can bring in extended family members.
On Monday, Trump Tweeted that "Any deal on DACA that does not include STRONG border security and the desperately needed WALL is a total waste of time. March 5th is rapidly approaching and the Dems seem not to care about DACA. Make a deal!"
House and Senate Democrats have been pressing for a separate vote on a bill to extend DACA, but have yet to receive assurances from the Republican leadership.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.