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Military Recruiting In The Time Of DACA


It's been 45 years since the U.S. stopped drafting young men into military service. Since then, the all-volunteer force - men and women - has fought three major wars and many smaller engagements. But, without the draft, filling the ranks is a challenge. The Pentagon says 70 percent of young Americans for one reason or another do not meet qualifications for military service.

NPR is looking at recruitment in each of the four military services. Today, we focus on the Marines. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us now. Tom, thanks so much for joining us.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be here.

MARTIN: Now, you've spent a lot of time with the Marines over the years. How is recruitment these days?

BOWMAN: Well, they really don't have the challenges of, let's say, the Army. The Marines are a smaller force, so they don't have to bring in as many recruits. And they also have a great public relations and marketing history, as many of us know. We think of the few, the proud, the statue of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. And the Marines have never been shy about talking about themselves.

But what's interesting when you look at the recruiting figures for the Marines is that Hispanics are signing up for the Marines in higher numbers than the other services. And surveys show that Hispanic teens point to the Marines as the toughest service. And they, more than non-Hispanic youth, say that being courageous is extremely important, and being a Marine - just being a Marine - outweighs any particular job or pay. That, of course, plays into the Marines' view of themselves as the first to fight.

Now, Michel, we're seeing changes in military security clearances, more vetting for noncitizens, and that changes the picture for one particular group of Hispanics - those without American citizenship. Now, President George W. Bush, of course, made a path to citizenship easier for immigrants who joined the military. President Trump has changed all that and made that path harder.

MARTIN: Now, I'm imagining that DREAMers are particularly affected - DREAMers being people who were brought here without authorization as children. There are some 700,000 DREAMers you know, on record, and nine out of 10 of them are Hispanic, and their future is uncertain.

BOWMAN: That's right. And that's exactly what reporter Julieta Martinelli of member station WPLN in Nashville found. Here's a report she filed.

JULIETA MARTINELLI, BYLINE: Arturo Salomon really wants to be a U.S. Marine. He hopes to join Force Recon, an elite among the elite of the corps. To stay in shape, the 24-year-old has a strict training schedule. It includes up to three hours a day of mixed martial arts.

ARTURO SALOMON: So that's always my go-to - jab, jab two, kick and then come back. And if that person's still trying to engage, then I go with the power leg, which is this one.

MARTINELLI: Salomon has kept up this routine for years. The problem is he can't enlist.

SALOMON: You know, when you have a dream, you accomplish everything else, and then you're, like, one step away from your dream, and you're, like, ah, got it. And then, next thing you know, it's gone.

MARTINELLI: Salomon entered the U.S. illegally with his parents when he was just a toddler. In high school, he was part of the ROTC program.

SALOMON: By my sophomore year, I decided, you know, I want to be part of the military.

MARTINELLI: But Salomon soon discovered that the U.S. government requires immigrant recruits to have some type of legal status. He got depressed, started getting in trouble at school and eventually dropped out of the program. Then, in June, 2012, a year after Salomon's high school graduation, President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Salomon applied and by the following year had a work permit and a driver's license. In summer 2013, he decided to try again.

SALOMON: The first recruiters that I went to talk to was the Marine Corps - always, always, always. There was my recruiter - talked to him. He made me took the sample ASVAB exam, and I had a good score.

MARTINELLI: Salomon says he was always attracted to the Marine Corps because they're portrayed as the toughest. Plus, he adds, it was Marines he encountered most in his community growing up. That's not surprising. The Marine Corps has the highest percentage of Hispanic service members of any branch. While Hispanics make up about 18 percent of the U.S. population, last year, over a quarter of all active-duty recruits in the Marines identified as Hispanic.

But while recruiters routinely deal with diversity, not all understand the complicated immigration policies affecting those with temporary status like Salomon.

SALOMON: They even told me, you know, there were people who came, tried to enlist, and we told them we didn't know anything about this. And then we really don't know what can happen or if we can enlist people with DACA.

MARTINELLI: It's been five years since he first approached the Marines. Salomon still checks in regularly in case something's changed.

MARGARET STOCK: The Pentagon has made a hash out of these immigrant recruiting programs by making them so complicated and difficult that the average person can't understand them.

MARTINELLI: Margaret Stock is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and an immigration attorney. She says she's not surprised about Salomon's experience but doesn't blame the recruiters.

STOCK: Immigrants tend to be less likely to drop out of basic training, more likely to reenlist. They have fewer disciplinary problems. The recruiting of immigrants gives the Pentagon a better bang for its buck. So if you don't recruit from that group, you're missing out on a lot of high-quality troops.

MARTINELLI: Last October, the Department of Defense announced it was also halting expedited citizenship for new recruits. In the past, most noncitizens would participate in a citizenship ceremony at the end of basic training. Since 2001, more than 100,000 immigrants earned their U.S. citizenship through the military. Now permanent residents must undergo a lengthy security clearance process before they can even start boot camp. That can take over a year.

STOCK: It's actually faster now to get your citizenship as a civilian than to get it through military service, and the net result is it's hurting military recruiting.

MARTINELLI: Salomon says he understands why getting rid of a path to citizenship could cause some immigrants to shy away from enlisting, even if they can. But he doesn't agree that's why most immigrants want to join.

SALOMON: It is hard, growing up as an undocumented kid, feeling like you don't belong, feeling like you're not part of anything. But, if you join the military, you're equal. All the recruits are the same.

MARTINELLI: Salomon says he'll wait as long as he has to for the rules to change again.

MARTIN: And reporter Julieta Martinelli is on the line with us now. Julieta, it seems that for Arturo - Arturo seems to be an example of what Tom was talking about earlier, that being a Marine is not a means to an end for him. He just wants to be a Marine.

MARTINELLI: Absolutely. There's a whole generation of undocumented kids who are now adults and who are looking to feel accepted and like they're part of something that roots them to this country. And that's largely an untapped market of sorts - the DACA generation. So people with DACA like Arturo are protected, but they're not quite legal, and so they're not eligible for the military service.

MARTIN: So, Tom Bowman, let me go back to you. The problems with DACA and recruiting are - clearly, these are a problem for potential recruits. But is this a problem for the Marines?

BOWMAN: You know, probably not. It won't help, of course. But, remember - this is a White House policy decision, not a Marine decision. And, again, we see large numbers of Hispanic teens wanting to join the Marines, many to test themselves. That's unlikely to change. As a general told me recently, young men sign up because they want to look the dragon in the eye.

MARTIN: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and Julieta Martinelli of member station WPLN. Thank you both so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MARTINELLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.