Leon E. Panetta, secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013, is chairman of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.
In October 1921, my Italian father arrived in the United States aboard the Providence, one of 1,800 third-class passengers searching for a better life in this country. At Ellis Island, he listed his total assets as $25 and his profession simply as "peasant."
My parents became U.S. citizens, but my mother's dad — my Nono — who had come from Italy to stay with us in Monterey, Calif., in the early 1940s, was not a citizen. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, some 10,000 Italians living in California coastal areas were targeted for removal because it was suspected that they would be a threat to the country during wartime. The order did not apply to U.S. citizens, but it did apply to my Nono, and he was forced to leave us and move inland. I was only 4, but I can still remember my tears as I struggled to understand why my Nono had to leave our family.
Fast-forward almost exactly 75 years, and again America is contemplating removing people who, though not citizens, have been living in the United States lawfully, serving as productive members of our society. This time, however, the government is contemplating not temporary orders to "move inland" but outright deportation of individuals from the country. The targeted population are the "dreamers," young men and women who were brought to the United States as children by their undocumented parents. They have attended school here, spoken English and grown up as Americans.
In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security created DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — to provide up to 2 million dreamers the chance for temporary protection from deportation and the opportunity to seek legal work permits. These dreamers must be vetted through a vigorous application process. To qualify for DACA, they had to have entered the United States prior to age 16, have resided in this country since 2007 , be in school or have graduated, and pose no threat to public safety.
On Tuesday, President Trump is reportedly planning to end DACA but defer any deportations for six months, giving Congress time to replace the program. If Trump follows through on his threat, Congress should seize this opportunity to pass bipartisan legislation now under consideration to allow dreamers to remain. This legislation would also help ensure that DHS spends precious immigration-enforcement resources on true security threats, such as terrorism suspects or convicted gang members — not on individuals who are willing to live here, pay taxes and contribute to society.
One reason I believe we must keep dreamers in this country is because they provide an outstanding pool of young women and men who can engage in national service, including military service.
In a 2017 report on national service issued by the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, we found that patriotic spirit and sense of purpose are declining among young Americans but that national service programs provide an antidote: an opportunity for young people to give back to their communities, strengthen bonds with one another, earn money for college and develop key skills.
Dreamers have shown high interest in military and national service. Many DACA recipients have participated in Junior ROTC, according to a 2013 letter to the Pentagon from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). For example, one participant who was brought to the United States from Venezuela at age 9 was the fourth-highest-ranking officer and commander of the Air Honor Society in his JROTC unit; another brought here at 7 was the highest-ranking JROTC student and received the highest score on the military aptitude test at her Miami high school. Several hundred JROTC cadets in Chicago Public Schools are undocumented. They would make outstanding soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen.
In 2014, the Defense Department began to allow a small subset of DACA recipients with specialized skills to enter the military, following in the tradition of thousands of noncitizens who have stood up and said they are willing to fight and die for our country. Today, there are several hundred DACA recipients in the Army; if DACA is ended, these soldiers could face immediate deportation.
Even if Trump were to have a last-minute change of heart on DACA, the best protection for dreamers would be for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to agree to allow the Bipartisan Dream Act — co-sponsored by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Durbin — to be attached to the National Defense Authorization Act. Our nation's first line of defense is our people. Dreamers are part of that line of defense.
My immigrant parents came to the United States because they believed they could give their children a better life in this country. This is the American Dream. I had the privilege of living that dream. It is our responsibility to let dreamers live the American Dream as well. That is the value that make our country free, secure and strong for all our people.
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