Willing to Fight for US, but Not Allowed to Live Here
Posted November 2017
Until Congress passes the Dream Act, Dreamers who want to serve the U.S. military are caught in legal limbo.
Colonel Daniel L. Baggio knows what it takes to serve the United States. COL Baggio is a retired U.S. Army officer who served in active duty for more than 33 years, including 11 years spent overseas everywhere from Iraq, Turkey, and the Balkans to the demilitarized border zone between North and South Korea. For the rest of his active duty, he served as the Chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Army.
For the last four years, Col. Baggio has continued to serve his country in a different way — working with high school students as director of the JROTC program in Chicago public schools. JROTC, the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, is a program that teaches high school students character education, leadership, and diversity. Started in 1916, the program serves XX students across the country. Chicago is the country’s largest program, serving 10,000 student cadets across 45 high schools.
JROTC’s mission is to “motivate young people to be better citizens.” But the definition of “citizen” isn’t one that the program takes literally when it comes to U.S. citizenship status. JROTC does not ask its cadets to report on immigration status, and students who are undocumented are treated no differently than those who are U.S. citizens.
“We’re here to support all the kids that are in Chicago Public Schools,” says Col. Baggio, “and we welcome each and every one of them into JROTC.”
Today it’s estimated that several thousand cadets across the country are undocumented immigrants, and JROTC’s welcoming attitude toward them is promising. It reflects the attitude of a majority of Americans, who want a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers” — the estimated 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16.
But as a result of the administration’s recent policy decisions, these cadets may be stuck in legal limbo with no options to live, work, or serve in the country they call home.
“These People Are Ideal”
While JROTC is not officially a military recruiting program, many cadets go on to serve in the military after high school or in ROTC programs in college. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program offered Dreamers with squeaky clean academic and personal backgrounds the chance to serve in the military, but the federal government’s recent termination of that program will leave this group with no way to enlist.
Over the years Col. Baggio has met several cadets who have identified as Dreamers and have proven to be extraordinary members of JROTC, excelling academically, rising to high levels of leadership within the program, contributing to their schools and communities, and helping to boost up their fellow cadets.
Col. Baggio points to one exceptional cadet who was the number two JROTC cadet in Chicago and a “brigadier general,” the rank above colonel. As far as Col. Baggio knows, Chicago is the only JROTC program in the world that has any rank above colonel and “she was one of those people,” he says. “She was such a role model… really a beacon, a magnet to other kids that come into the program.” But because she was a Dreamer, not a citizen, she couldn’t become an officer.
“Dreamers are probably the hardest working, most dedicated people you’ve ever met,” Baggio says. “They’re operating at a distinct disadvantage, because they don’t have services and support — all the things that we take for granted… As far as they’re concerned, they’re Americans. I look at these kids as kids with dreams and aspirations like we all have.”
Further, the administration actively seeks the funding and personnel to deport Dreamers and their families en masse. These exceptionally bright and hardworking young people have spent their lives in America. They are willing to die for this country, yet the government will not let them live here.
“These people are ideal,” says Maj. Tommie L. Hayes, a colleague of Col. Baggio’s in the JROTC program in Chicago. “They worked so hard, and for us to just turn our back on them and say, ‘Oh, you’re undocumented. I’m going to deport you,’ — it’s crazy. It’s cruel.”
When Doors Close for Dreamers, Americans Lose
In addition to DACA, another door recently closed for undocumented immigrants who wish to serve in the military is the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, which allowed people who fall into categories of asylee, refugee, Temporary Protected Status, DACA, or “non-immigrant categories” to enlist. The MAVNI program was suspended in 2016.
And it’s clear that Americans get the short end of the stick when Dreamers are denied opportunities to contribute.
Col. Baggio uses West Point as an example of how much America is missing out on by excluding Dreamers. For many students in JROTC, the ultimate goal is to attend West Point, the country’s most prestigious military academy that puts cadets on the fast track to high-ranking officer positions. Because West Point is officially affiliated with the military, students must be U.S. citizens in order to apply. In 2017, no students from Chicago Public Schools were admitted to West Point. Col. Baggio believes that if citizenship were not a requirement, more of his overachieving students would make the cut and would go on to serve America.
“One has to wonder how many kids out there who are highly qualified, who just happened to be Dreamers, didn’t apply because they were ineligible to,” he says. “Perhaps if we broadened the eligibility to include those Dreamers, we might get more future leaders of America to apply to West Point.”
Those opposed to letting Dreamers serve in the military might suggest that Dreamers “take spots” of deserving Americans. But Col. Baggio dismisses the idea. He says he welcomes and supports the competition that Dreamers encourage. When it comes to the defense of American freedom and liberty both at home and abroad, why would we not want “the best and the brightest” leading the way?
One cadet, a U.S. citizen with several friends who are Dreamers in the JROTC program, agrees.
“I’m honored to know many DACA recipients,” he says. “Some of my close friends who are DACA recipients, I’ve known them since second grade. They excel through many different classes that I definitely wouldn’t excel through. Dreamers are no different from anyone native-born, anyone like me.”
A Path to Citizenship is Possible
Historically, non-citizens have served in the military since the Revolutionary War. In fact, Col. Baggio’s grandfather was a ranking officer in the Italian army before moving to the U.S. and then enlisting here. Closing the door to Dreamers — who have been raised in America, as Americans — is counterproductive to the development of our national defense. Especially as the U.S. military faces repeated struggles with retention and recruitment.
The good news is that a solution is on the table. This year Congress has the opportunity to pass the Dream Act, permanent legislation that would provide work permits and pathways to citizenship for Dreamers. The bipartisan legislation was co-introduced by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, home to an estimated 42,000 Dreamers. The legislation must be brought to the floor and voted on in Congress.
Many former military personnel have been vocal in their support of Dreamers. On Sept. 5, the day Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the termination of DACA, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta penned an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune urging Congress to pass permanent legislation in support of Dreamers.
Dreamers provide “an outstanding pool of young women and men who can engage in national service, including military service,” he wrote. “Our nation’s first line of defense is our people. Dreamers are part of that line of defense.”
Congress has the tools and the power to build a better America by
honoring the countless contributions that Dreamers make to our country
every day. When we permit Dreamers to become citizens, America will
become a country worthy of their sacrifices. It’s time to legally
recognize Dreamers as the Americans they know themselves to be.
Until then, Col. Baggio and JROTC will continue to welcome Dreamers with open minds, open arms, and open hearts.
“I don’t understand why we would not allow Dreamers to join,” says Col. Baggio. “They grew up here in America, they finished school here in America, and they desire to join the military. It should be open for them.”