Without citizenship, quest to serve is grounded

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; B01

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."

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, estimated that 31,000 recent immigrants would choose to enlist in the military if the DREAM Act became law.

Carrasco didn't think much about military service before signing up for the JROTC. She was 14 then - "a quiet girly-girl," she said. "I never even thought about serving in Bolivia. It wasn't for me. . . . But the Air Force here is academically and physically demanding. It felt like a great place to start my career."

For several years, the program at South Lakes had been evolving from a mostly white battalion to a group as diverse as any Army recruiting billboard, earning state and national commendations in the process. Cadets' families hail from around the world. Some, according to Schuler, a 21-year Army veteran, are not citizens.

He knows because the JROTC's data sheet includes a box asking students that question, as is required by the JROTC, he said. Sometimes that's the last time the issue comes up. But in Carrasco's case, Schuler heard all about the aspiring cadet's travails: the paperwork and the uncertain prospects.

The program, which prides itself on promoting leadership and discipline, is also one of the school's more intimate classes, where students often feel comfortable airing problems they're having at home.

But when Carrasco learned earlier this week that her quest for citizenship had been delayed by at least a year, she kept quiet. "I didn't want to make the major sad," she said.

With high school nearing its end, Carrasco wants to make the most of the last months in her favorite class, despite the uncertainty about her future. That means waking up early, keeping her honor guard uniform spotless and leading the cadets in the JROTC cadet creed, which is how many of the classes begin.

"I am loyal and patriotic," it reads. "I am the future of the United States of America."

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