The Senate's top defense appropriator wants the Pentagon to act on its own to allow some undocumented immigrants to enlist in the military, if the House does not move ahead on immigration legislation.
Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, who is chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, made the comments at a field hearing in Chicago, where he heard testimony from several undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children (known as DREAMers, after legislation Durbin introduced 13 years ago).
"If the House Republicans refuse to move immigration reform, the Defense Department should use its authority under current law to authorize the enlistment of dreamers. Enlisting dreamers is 'vital to the national interest' because it would make the armed forces more diverse and inclusive, and it would allow the armed forces to access a well-qualified, educated, homegrown talent pool," the Illinois Democrat said in his opening statement.
In his statement, Durbin compared the predicament of the dreamers to the case of the late Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who was Durbin's predecessor on the Defense subcommittee.
Inouye was a member of the decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
"After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, tens of thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans were held in internment camps. Despite being labeled 'enemy aliens,' many young Japanese-Americans volunteered to fight in World War II," Durbin recalled. "The 442nd Regimental Combat team, an all Japanese-American unit, suffered the most casualties in the European campaign and was also the most decorated unit of its size in the history of the United States military."
Inouye told his own story in a moving floor speech back on Dec. 7, 2011, 60 years to the day after Pearl Harbor.
Durbin then recalled Inouye's comments about the DREAM Act.
"I will never forget Sen. Inouye's reaction. He said, 'By allowing the DREAM Act to sit idle, we extinguish hope for a lot of people and deny too many the opportunity I was given,'" Durbin said.
The House is scheduled to take up the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill this week, but Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., is not going to be allowed to offer an amendment known as the ENLIST Act that would create a legal status pathway for illegal immigrants who have served in the military.