The Pentagon made a surprise announcement on Thursday to let undocumented immigrants serve in the United States military — but few of them are likely to get into the armed forces under the new policy, experts told VICE News.
As a result, everyone from immigration advocates to Republican congressmen are pissed off.
"I don't think it's going to satisfy anybody," said Margaret Stock, an Alaska-based immigration lawyer, retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, and McArthur genius grant recipient who has worked with the Pentagon on recruiting legal immigrants.
"I'm mystified as to why they announced this policy," she added. "It makes no sense."
The Department of Defense is letting undocumented immigrants apply for military service under the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program, which recruits skilled foreigners, if they qualify as so-called "Dreamers": young people who entered the US illegally as children who have lived in the country for most of their lives, graduated from high school or earned a GED, and kept a clean legal record.
Of course, foreigners have fought in American military since the Frenchman Lafayette and the Polish engineer Thaddeus Kosciuszko helped George Washington win the Revolutionary War.
It's not the first time illegal immigrants have been allowed to fight for Uncle Sam either, Stock noted. Military conscription had always applied to every able-bodied young man in the country, including undocumented immigrants. Many of them fought in the Vietnam War, she said.
The Dreamers will only make the cut, however, if they successfully fill out a 127-page form that asks whether they have been terrorists, hold advanced degrees, and can speak Cebuano, Igbo, Yoruba, and a host of other rare languages. What's more, they'll be competing for only 1,500 open slots against thousands of legal immigrants with non-permanent visas who have already applied under the same criteria.
"This is honestly throwing crumbs at us," Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, deputy manager director of the Dreamers advocacy group United We Dream, told VICE News.
He believes the Pentagon's announcement was perhaps intended as a symbol, a gesture indicating that President Barack Obama is trying to help illegal immigrants whose plight elicits the sympathy of valuable Latino voters.
If that's the case, the gesture backfired.
"Don't expect us to be happy about it when we're not," Sousa-Rodriguez said.
Republicans who lean towards giving Dreamers a pathway to US citizenship in exchange for putting their lives at risk for Uncle Sam were also dismissive. According to Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives, President Barack Obama has twisted MAVNI.
"It's shameful that the Obama administration is using a law meant to protect the national security interests of the United States as a means to accomplish its political agenda," Goodlatte said in a statement to VICE News.
Marc Rosenblum of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute was a little more generous. The Pentagon program has such narrow criteria because it needs specialists, he said. Maybe the Marines might need an Uzbek thoracic surgeon who wants to be a jarhead.
"It's not a significant number from an immigration perspective, but it might be a significant number from the perspective of military intelligence," he told VICE News.
The move might also set the stage for an eventual path toward citizenship for some illegal immigrants.
Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr