Without citizenship, quest to serve is grounded

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

When Noheli Carrasco takes charge of her teenage battalion at South Lakes High School - their rifles pointing toward the ceiling, green uniforms crisply ironed - she looks much like the military officer she wants to be.

But Carrasco, 18, is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. And although she wants to join the Air Force after graduation and has been courted by recruiters, she is barred from enlisting.

The Obama administration, trying to bolster enlistment rates while fighting two overseas wars, is seeking to lift the restriction on undocumented immigrants like Carrasco through its DREAM Act. The Senate rejected it in December, but administration officials have called for its reintroduction and passage.

"It's the one thing I want to do. I want to serve this country," said Carrasco, who came here with her family from Bolivia when she was 11. "I had no idea how hard it would be."

The DREAM Act is most often described as a way to provide young, undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship through attending college. But it would also give aspiring soldiers such as Carrasco a chance to serve in the military - and earn permanent residency in the process.

Senate Republicans say they will not support the legislation until their larger concerns about illegal immigration and border security are addressed. "Giving a pathway to citizenship without first securing the border is an inducement to encourage more illegal immigration," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on the floor of the Senate in December.

But Carrasco has grown cautiously optimistic since hearing President Obama's State of the Union address, in which he called for both immigration reform and for opening ROTC programs on more college campuses. (JROTC is the high school version of the ROTC, or Reserve Officers' Training Corps, program). Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said he plans to reintroduce the DREAM Act sometime in the next several weeks.

In Northern Virginia, Carrasco wasn't alone in celebrating the administration's twin goals, trying to shed light on the potential connection between immigration reform and an all-volunteer military.

JROTC coordinators say it's not uncommon to meet young cadets from immigrant families who are eager to serve but do not have necessary documentation. A few years ago, Carrasco's brother was one of them. Last year, her best friend was another.

"It's frustrating, because there's nothing you can do," said Maj. Joseph Schuler, head of the JROTC program at South Lakes. "You just tell them to make sure their paperwork is in order and to have a good backup plan if things don't work out."

In recent months, top Pentagon officials have echoed that frustration, voicing support for the DREAM Act as a means of expanding the country's eligible recruiting pool.

"Throughout past and current conflicts, those who are not yet citizens have answered the call to defend their adopted nation," Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said at a December news conference. "Allowing DREAM Act-eligible youth the opportunity to serve this nation would continue this tradition of service while expanding the market of high-quality patriotic youth to the advantage of military recruitment and readiness."

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