WASHINGTON — President Obama’s decision last week to immediately halt the deportation of certain young illegal immigrants generated widespread joy and relief among the undocumented and their advocates.
But the major policy shift, which Obama said included those who have served in the military, also stirred confusion. Mitt Romney did not help matters Thursday when he, too, said he would support a path to legal residency for “those who have risked their lives in defense of America.”
One thing is clear: The military will not knowingly allow illegal immigrants to serve.
“Unless the current law were to be changed, or an individual were declared by the services to be vital to the national interest, the services are not permitted to enlist illegal immigrants,” said a Department of Defense spokesperson, who did not know why Obama had included military service as a condition.
An official with the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that “few, if any, individuals will fall into this category” that Obama referred to last week.
The official said that the department chose to include undocumented servicemen and women “out of an abundance of caution” to ensure that those who may have lost their legal status while enlisted would be covered. The new policy would grant two-year work permits to young immigrants who qualify instead of deporting them.
The president appeared to clarify his earlier statement during a speech Friday to a group of Latino government officials, lamenting that current immigration law “denies innocent young people the chance to . . . serve in the uniform of the country they love.”
A Romney spokesperson said the former Massachusetts governor would favor legislation that would allow illegal immigrants to enlist in the military as a path toward permanent residency, but the spokesperson did not specify whom Romney was referring to in Thursday’s address to the same group of Latino officials.
Illegal immigrants have managed to get into the military using fake papers.
“A lot of these undocumented youth grew up and educated themselves feeling American,” said Antonio Albizures-Lopez, a 21-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala whose parents brought him to the United States when he was 1. Lopez, a community college student in Rhode Island, said he knows of several friends who are illegal immigrants currently enlisted in the military. “A lot of them take a patriotic sentiment to being an American and they want to serve the country in which they grew up.”
Margaret Stock, an attorney and retired Army officer who teaches political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said the only veterans who would be affected by Obama’s new policy would be a handful of undocumented immigrants who requested to be discharged because they were conscientious objectors or because of their foreign status.
People who used fake papers to enlist but are waiting for their citizenship to be processed may also benefit.
“The bottom line is there may be a handful of people affected but it is not very large,” said Stock, whose book “Immigration Law and the Military” was published in April.
If illegal immigrants were to be allowed to enlist, as Romney proposed and as outlined by the Dream Act — a wider pathway to citizenship supported by Obama and many Democrats but which has stalled in Congress — only a few thousand people per year would be eligible because most of the jobs in the military are not open to noncitizens, Stock said.
No estimate is available on the number of illegal immigrants who manage to sneak into the military, but it has become more difficult to do so since 2003, when the military began checking the status of noncitizens with the Department of Homeland Security, Stock said.
Stock recounted the story of an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who enlisted in the Marine Corps using fake papers including a bad Social Security number a year ago but was discovered after serving only a few days and deported without an honorable discharge.
“You can’t get away with that anymore,” Stock said. “In the old days you might. Not anymore.”
Had he not been deported, she said, the man would have been eligible for a two-year reprieve under Obama’s new policy.
Chris Lavery, an immigration lawyer in Boston, said several years ago one of his clients tried to enlist in the Coast Guard as a fast-track to citizenship but was quickly denied because he was not a lawful permanent resident and was up front about his status.
Lavery will be meeting with another young man next week who is undocumented and wants to enlist in the Marines.
Miguel Mijares came to the United States from Mexico with his mother and brother when he was 4.
During high school in Cambridge, he worked out with Marine recruiters twice a week, running in the rain and crawling in the mud until his legs “didn’t walk right anymore.”
“Kids asked me a lot in high school why I would want to join the Marines as a Mexican,” said Mijares, 18. “But I grew up in Massachusetts, you know? I grew up rooting for the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Red Sox, and hating the Yankees. I didn’t grow up with my cousins rooting for some club soccer team. I just feel like I belong here.”
He spoke with two recruiters about enlisting but they said he needed a green card.
Lavery, his attorney, said he would contact the military about other options given Obama’s new policy.
“But I have grave concerns about the permanency of what the presidency is proposing given the fact that we have an election coming up,” Lavery said.
Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.