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Enlisted and Standing Ready, Immigrant Marine Must Wait to Serve His Country

In 2015, John Sena and his twin brother were shocked when their mother explained that the family was undocumented. Then a high school senior in Covington, California, Sena’s dream was to become a U.S. Marine. His brother wanted to join the Navy. Three of their uncles had served, and Sena was passionate about his chosen path. “I’ve always wanted to be a Marine,” he says. “I want to be an officer. I want to lead my own men.”

Sena, who was born in the Philippines, learned the truth about his undocumented status when his Marine recruiter asked for his U.S. passport and Social Security card. “My mom said, ‘You don’t have one,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And there was a very long pause.” Sena graduated from high school but was unable to enlist. “All of my friends were planning their futures,” he says. “But I was stuck.”

When Sena’s parents left the Philippines in the late 1990s, the nation’s stock market was crashing and they had both lost their jobs. “It was a sink-or-swim situation for them,” Sena says. “It was either we would die of hunger, or we’d make it out. They chose to come here to the United States.” Settling in California, they worked a variety of minimum-wage jobs in restaurants. As a child, Sena remembers seeing soldiers in dress blues and camouflage filtering in and out of a recruiting station near one of his mother’s workplaces. Sena asked his dad about the men and his dad replied, “Those are the Marines, son. They’re the most lethal fighting force this country has.”

Because he was brought to the United States at the age of 10, Sena was eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy that allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to defer deportation for renewable two-year periods and to work legally in the United States. And prior to 2016, his English-Filipino fluency made him eligible for Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), a program that allowed non-citizens with foreign language or other vital skills to enlist in the U.S. military, and, as a result, start a pathway to citizenship. When Sena first heard that he was eligible for the program, in the fall of 2015, he rushed to his local recruiting station the next day. But the MAVNI program was suspended the following year, leaving him in limbo: He was technically enlisted but, with his security clearance pending, did not yet have a contract.

Increasing the pool with qualified immigrant applicants would help solve that problem.

Sena’s inability to serve in the U.S. military represents a deep personal loss for him, and for the country. “Last year, I heard that the Army didn’t meet their quota. I think they were short a few thousand recruits,” he says. In 2017, the Army announced it would relax its qualification standards, accepting a greater number of recruits with lower test scores and granting additional waivers for past marijuana use, in an attempt to meet its target of 80,000 new soldiers. “Increasing the pool with qualified immigrant applicants would help solve that problem,” says Sena.

For now, Sena is working part time as a sushi chef in a Japanese restaurant while studying for his nursing degree at Mt. San Antonio college, in Walnut, California. Now 21, he remains determined to become a member of the U.S. military someday. “This is my future,” he says. “I’m still standing ready. It’s what I’ve always wanted to be. There’s a quote that I really relate to: The two greatest things in your life are the day when you are born and the day when you find out why. This is my why. The military is my why.”

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