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A Colorado Republican lawmaker has introduced legislation to allow some immigrants, including some who came to the U.S. illegally, the chance to earn U.S. citizenship through military service.
"My late father, a career soldier, taught me that there is no higher demonstration of American citizenship than serving one's country in the military," said Rep. Mike Coffman, a Marine Corps combat veteran who also served in the Army.
The Military Enlistment Opportunity Act, introduced by Coffman on Thursday, would offer people who came to the U.S. with visas, and who have stayed for a minimum of two years, a path to citizenship through military service.
Additionally, naturalization would be possible for the children of illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16 and who have stayed, continuously, for at least five years. They would need an employment authorization document from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service in order to qualify.
Coffman, a member of the House armed services and veterans' affairs committees, said his bill is aimed at young people who "want the opportunity to serve."
Those who came to the U.S. as children "grew up here, went to school here and they ought to have an opportunity to serve the country they call home," he said.
Coffman said many of those who arrived on visas came to the U.S. to attend college or work in information technology and other high-tech fields — skills needed in the military. "Emerging areas like cyber warfare require the skill sets that foreign students studying in the United States can bring to the military," he said.
Providing a way to become a citizen, not just a legal immigrant, is an important option, Coffman said, because noncitizens cannot become officers and cannot hold a security clearance, limitations that hurt assignment and career opportunities.
Coffman said the move is part of an effort to broaden the pool of people who can serve. "We have an elite military today with the standards set so high that the vast majority of young people are not able to meet entrance requirements," he said. "Increasing the pool of those who can apply will further increase standards and add more competition for every opening."