Future U.S. Military Readiness Depends on Immigration Reform

Our broken immigration system undermines our military readiness and national security.

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Sergey Eliseev (R) of the US Army and originally from Russia, alongside other active duty US service members, after they became US citizens during a naturalization ceremony.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty
Jim Gill
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Jim Gill
July 16, 2014, 10:35 p.m.

On Ju­ly 4, as we cel­eb­rated In­de­pend­ence Day, vet­er­ans joined act­ive-duty mil­it­ary and mil­it­ary spouses and be­came cit­izens at a White House nat­ur­al­iz­a­tion ce­re­mony. These ser­vice mem­bers and vet­er­ans — ded­ic­ated im­mig­rants — were will­ing to risk their lives for their coun­try even be­fore they could vote for a com­mand­er in chief. They are part of a long tra­di­tion of im­mig­rants serving with hon­or in our Armed Forces.

Un­for­tu­nately, our na­tion’s broken im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem does not hon­or our his­tory as a na­tion of laws and a na­tion of im­mig­rants. It also makes us less com­pet­it­ive and un­der­mines our mil­it­ary read­i­ness and na­tion­al se­cur­ity. As a former seni­or non-com­mis­sioned of­ficer in the U.S. Army, I re­cog­nize the sys­tem’s un­mis­tak­able flaws.

Our coun­try must do more to wel­come im­mig­rants. Since Septem­ber 2002, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has nat­ur­al­ized 89,095 mem­bers of the mil­it­ary and vet­er­ans, mak­ing these for­eign-born, leg­al-per­man­ent res­id­ents U.S. cit­izens. But we should ex­pand that op­por­tun­ity to oth­er im­mig­rants who are will­ing to serve.

Jim Gill (Cour­tesy photo)Here is why: The U.S. mil­it­ary is in a con­stant com­pet­i­tion to at­tract and re­cruit top-notch young tal­ent, but this is not an easy task. Few­er than 30 per­cent of youth in the United States would even qual­i­fy to serve in the mil­it­ary, ac­cord­ing to the De­fense De­part­ment. Many are dis­qual­i­fied due to crim­in­al vi­ol­a­tions, lack of edu­ca­tion, obesity, or oth­er phys­ic­al lim­it­a­tions. And, yes, thou­sands of eli­gible young ap­plic­ants are barred from ser­vice due to their im­mig­ra­tion status.

As the chal­lenges the coun­try asks the mil­it­ary to take on be­come more com­plex and the reach of our mil­it­ary be­comes more glob­al, our suc­cesses or fail­ures will de­pend on our abil­ity to re­cruit and re­tain the most tal­en­ted and ded­ic­ated in­di­vidu­als this na­tion has to of­fer. The tal­ent our mil­it­ary needs in­cludes spe­cif­ic lan­guage and unique cul­tur­al skills, which only im­mig­rants can of­fer. Spe­cial Op­er­a­tion Forces have a grow­ing role in our de­fense port­fo­lio. These units rely on in­di­vidu­als who can blend in­to nat­ive cul­tures and pos­sess nat­ive lan­guage pro­fi­ciency.

Our mil­it­ary needs ac­cess to the best re­cruits, im­mig­rants as well as nat­ive-born cit­izens. We must cre­ate a pro­cess with enough ca­pa­city and scalab­il­ity to meet that need. Among the pos­sible solu­tions would be to broaden the op­por­tun­ity for those who serve to earn their cit­izen­ship quickly, to al­low young im­mig­rants known as “Dream­ers” to join these ranks, and to ex­pand routes for people with key tech­nic­al skills to come to the U.S. leg­ally and to serve.

Dream­ers stand out as es­pe­cially de­serving of a pro­cess that would al­low them to serve and earn cit­izen­ship. These young im­mig­rants were brought to this coun­try by their fam­il­ies and grew up here. They at­ten­ded school and gradu­ated in the United States, which they have called home for the bet­ter part of their lives.

And this is noth­ing new. Our na­tion’s mil­it­ary has al­ways re­lied heav­ily on the con­tri­bu­tions of im­mig­rants.

Take the case of Sylvestre Her­rera. Her­rera fought vali­antly in France as an in­fan­try­man in World War II. He earned the Medal of Hon­or for hero­ic ac­tions after cap­tur­ing eight Ger­mans and at­tack­ing a ma­chine gun-po­s­i­tion through a mine­field. He lost a leg but con­tin­ued fight­ing to ac­com­plish the mis­sion. Her­rera, born in Mex­ico, lived in the United States be­fore the war but was not a cit­izen. He chose to serve, though he did not have to do so. Why? “My ad­op­ted coun­try had been so nice to me,” he said.

Would today’s im­mig­rants say the same? Can they hon­estly say the same?

I be­lieve our coun­try at­tracts some of the bravest ser­vice­men and wo­men in the world. I know that we also ap­peal to some of the bright­est minds in the world. In or­der to con­tin­ue to do so, I am con­vinced that we must stake out a plan to stay com­pet­it­ive.

Im­mig­ra­tion re­form must pri­or­it­ize our bor­der and in­tern­al se­cur­ity. But provid­ing the op­por­tun­ity for as­pir­ing en­tre­pren­eurs, sci­ent­ists, and sol­diers alike to earn Amer­ic­an cit­izen­ship will fa­cil­it­ate the more ac­count­able, vi­brantly grow­ing so­ci­ety that we need to pre­vail in an evolving and com­plex glob­al eco­nom­ic and se­cur­ity en­vir­on­ment.

Con­gress seems un­likely to act on re­form­ing our broken sys­tem this year. That dis­ap­points me and mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans. We ur­gently need an im­mig­ra­tion pro­cess that sup­ports the needs of our mil­it­ary and our busi­nesses alike. And we need the per­man­ent solu­tions that only le­gis­la­tion can provide. 

Jim Gill of Jack­son­ville, Fla., is the pres­id­ent of TMG Gov­ern­ment, a dis­abled-vet­er­an-owned small busi­ness that spe­cial­izes in mil­it­ary train­ing ana­lys­is, learn­ing and hu­man cap­it­al plan­ning, and pro­fes­sion­al con­sult­ing ser­vices fo­cused on mil­it­ary and vet­er­ans is­sues. He served in the U.S. Army for 20 years.


HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force, and health. In­ter­ested in sub­mit­ting a piece? Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com with a brief pitch. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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