Iván Rosales wants to train to be a doctor in the military, but because of his immigration status, he can't enlist.
The 23-year-old Manhattan resident came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 8 months old. In November, he was approved for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama administration program that allows young undocumented immigrants to live and work in the country legally. But that doesn't make him eligible to join the military.
"Both of my brothers are in the Army," he said. "I've seen them go out to combat and all of that and I really admire them for it...I see how much they've grown and everything that the Army has given them. I want to take advantage of that."
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Rosales joined 20 other DREAMers in New York, California and Arizona on Thursday, calling for the Department of Defense to allow those approved for deferred action to serve in the armed forces. The action was organized by DRM Capitol Group, which lobbies on behalf of young undocumented immigrants.
Since the November election, immigration reform has taken center stage as one of the top priorities of Democratic and Republican politicians in 2013. The rough outlines of plans by President Barack Obama and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have surfaced in the media in recent weeks, and a group of senators led by Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are working on legislation in Congress.
Some DREAMers want to make sure military service is on the reform agenda. Cesar Vargas, the executive political director of DRM Capitol Group, thinks there should be a policy change even before a bill is passed.
"That's why we're here, for immigration reform," he said. "But also, in the meantime, for the president to allow the Secretary of Defense to issue a memo allowing DREAMers with deferred action to enlist."
Ivan Rosales, 23, would like to serve as a doctor in the military but can't because of his immigration status. (Credit: Ted Hesson)
More than 150,000 DREAMers have been approved for deferred action, and Iván Rosales says hundreds of them are interested in serving in armed forces. "We call ourselves the Dream Army," he said. Vargas put the estimate higher, in the tens of thousands.
The number of Latinos in armed forces is definitely on the rise. Earlier this month, NBC Latino reported that Hispanics make up 11.4 percent of the active-duty military forces, but that 16.9 percent of new recruits in 2011 were Hispanic.
Some of those recruits are immigrants. One of the first casualties in the Iraq War was a Guatemalan immigrant who grew up as an orphan in Guatemala City and then crossed into the U.S. illegally at the age of 14. Lance Cpl. Jose Antonio Gutierrez gained legal status and attended high school and college in California before enrolling in the Marines in 2002. He died a year later in combat.
Cesar Vargas (center), the executive director of DRM Capitol, meets with an Army recruiter. (Credit: Ted Hesson)
In another respect, this has been a historic week for the military. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an order ending the ban restricting women from combat roles would be lifted. The DREAMers asking to serve in armed forces hope their cause will be addressed next.
Joe McNamara, an ironworker from Brooklyn and an army veteran who served for 15 months in Iraq, is a friend of Vargas. He thinks that young undocumented immigrants should be allowed to serve their country since they didn't choose to come to the U.S. illegally.
"I don't know why they have the policy, but I think that for someone who wasn't given the opportunity to make that choice if they're here legally or not, then it should be voided," he said.