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Last month, the Obama administration announced a major change to immigration policy with regards to the military. Now, military family members who are in the country illegally have a new path to stay and apply for permanent legal status.
But this new policy appears contradictory to an increasingly common practice in many branches of the military — a practice that explicitly bans applicants who have undocumented dependents.
From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Jude Joffe-Block of Fronteras Desk reports.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.
Last month, the Obama administration announced a major change to immigration policy with regards to the military. Now, military family members who are in the country illegally have a new path to stay and apply for permanent legal status. But this new policy appears to contradict an increasingly common practice that bans applicants who have undocumented dependents. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, KJZZ's Jude Joffe-Block explains.
JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: Margaret Stock is an immigration lawyer and a nationally known expert in military issues, and her phone has been ringing a lot lately.
MARGARET STOCK: There's been a lot of confusion about whether people are allowed to enlist in the military or not.
JOFFE-BLOCK: The calls are coming from people who are otherwise eligible to enlist but are married to immigrants who don't have papers.
STOCK: The military recruiters are now telling them they're not allowed to enlist in the military until their spouse has a lawful immigration status. And, of course, this can take years and years to sort out.
JOFFE-BLOCK: The Navy began barring applicants with unauthorized immigrant dependents four years ago. The Marine Corps and Army followed suit. Stock finds it surprising, though, because during that same period, federal immigration officials have been helping the undocumented spouses, children and parents of service members remain in the country legally. That was the policy formalized in a memo last month.
STOCK: That program obviates the need for any bar to enlistment. So it doesn't make any sense for them to be enforcing this rule now. It's almost as though the people doing this don't understand what's been going on out there.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Kathleen Welker, a spokeswoman for the Army Recruiting Command, confirmed the Army does bar applicants with undocumented dependents, though there isn't a formal written policy.
KATHLEEN WELKER: When an applicant shows that his dependents or her dependents do not have proper documentation, that's a red flag to a recruiter that the applicant is in this case harboring an illegal alien.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Welker says the reasoning is based on a federal statute that makes it a crime to harbor or conceal an unauthorized immigrant.
WELKER: And that means that the applicant then is breaking the law and may be subject to arrest. Well, that's not what we're about in the U.S. Army.
OMAR JADWAT: That is a totally untenable reading of the law. It's just wrong.
JOFFE-BLOCK: That's Omar Jadwat. He's an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrant Rights Project. He disagrees with the Army's interpretation, that living with undocumented immigrants counts as illegally harboring them.
JADWAT: Multiple federal courts of appeals have specifically rejected the notion that cohabitation with somebody who lacks immigration status is harboring.
JOFFE-BLOCK: A spokesman for the Department of Defense gave a different justification for these enlistment restrictions. He said the individual branches have adopted them because of, quote, administrative and security concerns. For example, he said, undocumented family members aren't eligible for the military IDs other dependents get to access military services.
But these explanations haven't satisfied members of Congress who are now demanding more information. Douglas Rivlin works for Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois.
DOUGLAS RIVLIN: There's no reason that we could think of why any branch of the military would want to restrict that military service of U.S. citizens based on the immigration status of someone in their family.
JOFFE-BLOCK: More than congressmen from both sides of the aisle have signed on to a letter to military leaders, asking for clarification.
RIVLIN: They want to know why this is being done and whether there's a plan to redress this. It seems to be a big mistake.
JOFFE-BLOCK: Earlier this month, the Pentagon responded to the congressman. The enlistment rules are now under review. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix.
YOUNG: And Jude's story came to us from the Fronteras Desk. That's a public radio collaboration in the southwest. It focuses on the border, immigration and changing demographics. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.