Luis Montesdeoca was still in high school when he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. “I was drawn to the brotherhood and pride,” he says. “But then I found out that I didn’t qualify, because of my immigration status.”
Montesdeoca was undocumented. When he was 15 years old, his parents, unable to find work in Ecuador, had moved to the United States without papers. So when Montesdeoca graduated from high school, he pushed aside his dream to become a soldier and went into construction instead, later training to become a highly skilled machinist. When former President Barack Obama signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which provides temporary protected legal status to qualifying undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, Montesdeoca’s dream finally seemed attainable. With DACA, he was now eligible for Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI, a recruiting program that allows noncitizens with legal status to enlist if they possess either critical language or healthcare skills in short supply among U.S. citizens.
If you are not a criminal, and you have been here contributing to this country, you deserve a chance to prove that you can contribute even more.
Spanish, Montesdeoca’s native language, did not qualify, “so I learned Portuguese, and passed their test,” he says. “You have to score a certain level in order to pass, and get a green light to enlist. That’s what I did.”
Montesdeoca is one of an estimated 169,000 DACA-eligible individuals ages 18 and older who speak one of the more than three dozen languages the U.S. military needs to find among today’s recruits. In fact, a substantial portion of the Dreamer population speaks one or more languages relevant to the country’s ongoing military engagements: Almost 12,000 DACA-eligible immigrants speak Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, or Farsi at home.
In 2016, however, shortly after Montesdeoca enlisted, the government suspended MAVNI. Montesdeoca, along with some 900 other DACA recipients who enlisted through the program, is now stuck in limbo, unsure of whether he will be able to deploy and serve the country he has called home for the last 17 years. He also faces a new challenge: In 2017, President Donald Trump announced plans to phase out DACA by March 2018 unless Congress acts. Montesdeoca is 32 years old and lives in Tampa, Florida, with his wife, a Colombian-born dental hygienist who is also a DACA recipient, and three U.S.-born children, ages 6, 11, and 15. He also has an older sister who is a U.S. citizen. After nearly two decades in the United States, he cannot imagine living anywhere else.
Montesdeoca’s DACA status is valid until August 2019, and he hopes his military service will put him on a pathway to citizenship. But this will only be possible if the government finalizes his security clearance, a process that has experienced significant delays in recent months. “I am planning on staying in the military for 20 years or so,” he says. “I always think of my mother. She’s got no status, and she has been here for like 27 years. Immigration reform needs to help people like her. If you are not a criminal, and you have been here contributing to this country, you deserve a chance to prove that you can contribute even more. I had to learn a whole new language for me to be able to enlist under the military as a DACA. If someone is willing to make that sacrifice, they should be allowed to serve and become a citizen.”