Yeimi Lemus, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, had plans to join the U.S. Army on her 18th birthday. Her dream is to become a police detective, and she thought that military training, combined with a college degree, would enable her to reach that goal.
But unless current U.S. policy changes, Lemus will be unable to serve the country she has called home since she was 5 years old. The Dayton, Ohio, high school senior is now a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy that gives qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children temporary legal status. She thought this legal status would allow her to join the military.
That used to be the case, at least for Dreamers with certain skills. In 2014, Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) became open to DACA recipients. MAVNI, launched in 2009, allows noncitizens who have had legal status for at least two years to join the military if they possess critical healthcare or language skills considered in short supply among U.S. citizens. Some 900 DACA recipients enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces through MAVNI. But the program, designed to help meet recruitment needs considered vital to national defense, closed to new applicants in 2016.
Now it is no longer possible for Dreamers like Lemus to even apply to join the military, despite the unique qualifications many of them hold. An estimated 169,000 DACA-eligible individuals ages 18 and older speak one of the more than three dozen languages the U.S. military says it needs in today’s recruits. Almost 28,000 Dreamers speak Korean at home and more than 9,000 speak Russian, both of which are identified as posing recruitment challenges. Far more speak 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. Furthermore, almost 42,000 people who are DACA eligible have worked in healthcare in the last five years.
We don’t want to take away your job or your place in a classroom. We are simply doing our best as humans.
As for Lemus, she faces an additional challenge. Her DACA status is set to expire on her birthday later this year. “I’m very concerned,” she says. “I want to renew, but the papers are taking forever and it’s a big, long process, so I’m really worried.” Worse, the White House has said it will rescind DACA in March 2018 unless Congress takes action. Lemus’s DACA status has enabled her to drive a car, secure a part-time restaurant job to help her family, and plan for a career in criminal justice. Nationally, 90 percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older are employed, and combined these Dreamers pay $3 billion in taxes every year and almost $2.5 billion into the Social Security and Medicare funds, critical social programs that benefit all Americans.
Without a solution for DACA, Lemus could not only lose her job, she could also see her family ripped apart. Lemus’ older sister is also a DACA recipient, her two younger sisters were born in the United States, and her mother and father remain undocumented. “I’m really scared that someone could barge in and take my parents, and I’d never have the chance to say goodbye to them,” she says.”The state has our address, so they could come in and take us at any time. I really don’t want to be separated from my family.”
She hopes Congress will recognize the hard work of Dreamers and their families and act to protect them. “I’ve been here since I was 5, and I have been studying really hard,” Lemus says. “We don’t want to take anything away from anyone. We don’t want to take away your job or your place in a classroom. We are simply doing our best as humans.”