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Undocumented military cadets molded for success, then cast adrift

Hannah Rappleye / NBC News

Abigail Nava, 17, stands in her Class A uniform during morning formation at Chicago's Phoenix Military Academy.

CHICAGO -- On days when she can’t get a ride, Rocio Herrera catches the 6:10 a.m. bus from her poor, largely Hispanic neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side for the long trip to Phoenix Military Academy – one of the city’s six public military-themed high schools.

The military schools are part of the Department of Defense’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, or JROTC. At most schools, JROTC is an elective that requires a few classes on military history and leadership, after-school activities and wearing a uniform a few times a week. In Chicago Public Schools’ military academies, uniforms and salutes are part of everyday life.

One morning in early April, Herrera and her fellow cadets walked through a metal detector and filed into the gym for formation at 7:35 a.m. As they lined up by company, students adjusted their crisp green jackets.  Herrera wore the blue pressed jacket of a battalion commander, her ribbons straight and patent leather shoes spit-polished.

Herrera can hold her own on the street. When she feels disrespected, her round face goes hard. In school, the 17-year-old found a way to channel that toughness. Leadership responsibilities have kept her busy this spring, along with thinking about what she’ll wear to prom.

As for life after graduation in June, Herrera is not sure.

She said she has always dreamed of joining the military, something she is well-prepared for thanks to JROTC. But that road is closed to her because of what she often calls her “situation”: She is an undocumented immigrant.

Top of their class
Herrera’s “situation” is hardly unique.

Chicago Public Schools runs the largest JROTC program in the nation, with 11,000 students enrolled. Officials there estimate that 10 percent are undocumented immigrants, most of whom entered the country as young children. Nationally, experts believe thousands more are in the program, though legal restrictions on asking about immigration status in public schools make hard numbers impossible to come by.

Abigail Nava is a standout cadet leader at Chicago's Phoenix Military Academy, but as she's an undocumented student, her dream of attending West Point is just out of reach, for now. NBC's Miguel Alvear reports.

Military service as a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants is a part of the wide ranging bipartisan immigration reform bill introduced in the U.S. Senate in April. The bill would allow young undocumented immigrants like Herrera who arrived as children to apply for a provisional immigration status, and then enter the military. Those who graduate high school and serve four years would then be eligible to apply for citizenship.

The Pentagon, which faces a shortage of able, accomplished recruits, has supported previous efforts to allow undocumented immigrants to enlist.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2006, then-Under Secretary of Defense David Chu said, “Many of these young people may wish to join the military, and have the attributes needed – education, aptitude, fitness and moral qualifications.”

But opponents like Roy Beck, founder and CEO of Numbers USA, which advocates for reduced immigration, argue that creating a military path to citizenship is “a step toward a mercenary army.”

“Taking this to its extreme, do you basically tell everyone in the world, ‘If you come over here and break into the county, and you're young enough, you buy U.S. citizenship by fighting for us?’” he said.

Todd Connor is a familiar figure at Phoenix. He walks through the halls greeting students with a strident, “Good morning, cadet!” They look up at the slim man in the well-cut suit and reply, “Good morning, sir!”

Hannah Rappleye / NBC News

Rocio Herrera, 17, stands outside Phoenix Military Academy.

Connor became executive director of military programs at Chicago Public Schools about a year ago. He had served as a Navy officer during Operation Iraqi Freedom, then became a successful business consultant. Until recently, he didn’t know much about running high schools.

The student body at Phoenix is about 72 percent Hispanic and 26 percent black. More than 90 percent of its 409 students qualify for the federal lunch program, a widely used measure of student poverty. Connor saw those numbers and knew they meant: kids statistically more likely to test poorly and drop out, kids who would have a harder time getting to college. But he didn’t think about his cadets’ legal status.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Victory Harris, commandant  of the JROTC program at Phoenix Military Academy in Chicago, says that rules preventing undocumented students from enlisting in the military mean "we are losing great, great Americans who could contribute to this country."

That changed in 2011, when Connor was chatting with a group of students about the future. One was senior Alejandro Morales, then Chicago’s highest-ranking cadet. Knowing Morales dreamed of becoming the Marines’ first Hispanic commandant, Connor asked about his plans after graduation. Morales seemed evasive. Connor persisted. Finally, an instructor pulled him aside and said, “Sir, he’s undocumented. He says he wants to go into the military but he can’t.”

This is, to Connor, “unstrategic.” Morales and others like him were brought to the United States as children and the country has invested public dollars in their educations – yet the system prevents them from serving in the military.

“It’s both broken and it’s wrong,” Connor said. “At the point when they’re ready to return the investment, we shut the door on them.”

Morales couldn’t enlist and was unable to attend college. “In eighth grade I thought that by now things would be different,” Morales said. “By the time I graduated, I’d be able to enlist.”

He has some hope. A few months ago, the 19-year-old applied for deferred action, the Obama administration policy adopted last year that gives two years of protection from deportation, along with a temporary work permit, to undocumented students in good standing. Morales is now learning to drive a semi.

‘Closed Doors’
Each September, Darci Keyser, one of Phoenix’s two guidance counselors, starts to hear the stories again.

“The senior year is the most heartbreaking to us as counselors,” she said, reading future heartache on the sheet of junior class rankings fanned on the table in front of her. The names of the undocumented cadets are highlighted in red, clustered at the top. “They’re always our top kids,” Keyser said. “They all get acceptances. They all get scholarship money. But they don’t get enough.”

Francisco Peralta, 17, ranks first in his class. When he walks past his locker, he gazes up at his certificate of achievement as a 2013-2014 Illinois State Scholar and another marking his perfect attendance all four years. He is no longer the kid who was bullied so badly in sixth grade that his family had to move, or the one who gave up on his grades in middle school. Now, he makes firm eye contact from behind his glasses and matter-of-factly lists his accomplishments.

Francisco Peralta, a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant and Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet, is graduating atop his senior class at Phoenix Military Academy. His prospects for attending college or enlisting in the military are not bright, but he remains upbeat: "I am undocumented, but I won't let that stop me from reaching my goal."

Peralta arrived in this country when he was 3. He doesn’t remember Mexico, but for years he has known that his place of birth could prevent him from enlisting in the military, and becoming a scientist. Without a Social Security number, he can’t apply for federal financial aid, and does not qualify for many private scholarships. To go to college, the oldest of five kids needs a full ride scholarship to cover not only tuition, but fees, room, board and books.

During his junior year, that reality began to creep into his spoken-word poems. He called one “Closed Door”:

The door is slammed in my face

so opportunities like those around me I cannot take

they slip through my hands like sand

so I am never able to grab

or take full advantage of this land.

During senior year, he stayed positive as he mailed off his applications.

Keyser thought he had a chance. “He’s done everything an undocumented kid can,” she said. “If it’s not happening for him, I don’t know who it will happen to.”

Peralta’s acceptance letters started arriving early in his senior year. Each offered enthusiastic congratulations, but awards that would only partially cover the bills. The envelope from De Paul University, Peralta’s first choice, came in December. He had earned a scholarship of up to $28,000 over four years. Tuition for his freshman year alone was $33,390.

When his hopes of winning a prestigious scholarship were dashed, he and his 13-year-old sister Jacqueline cried together. 

“I worry because what if they don't give him papers,” Jacqueline, who was born in the U.S. and is a citizen, said of her brother. “And all of those years of hard study would be for nothing, and then maybe he's going to end up like one of my parents that have to work … at a really bad job for little pay.”

Asked about Francisco’s options after graduating, Jacqueline could think of only two. “He could work construction with my uncle and my dad,” she said. “Or he could go to a store, like a fast food store, and try to work there.”

Hoping for open doors
The immigration reform legislation being debated in Washington could change things for juniors like Abigail Nava. Her journey to the United States from Mexico when she was 9 remains vivid: a walk of two days and two nights through the Arizona desert. When she started school in Chicago, teachers excoriated her for not picking English up faster. Kids called her “wetback.” In the eighth grade, when she learned Phoenix had accepted her, she cried. 

The first time she buttoned the jacket of her uniform, “I knew that it was for me,” she said. She’s now commander of the school’s 80-student Charlie Company.

Earlier this year she began to look into West Point and the Naval Academy, scrolling down the schools’ web pages, checking off her qualifications. When she hit the citizenship requirement, Nava began to understand what Francisco Peralta’s poem meant.

In the Phoenix gym on that April morning, Nava stepped in front of each member of her company by turn, eyes sharp under her carefully shaped brows, inspecting the uniforms of the cadets to make sure everything was in place.

She does the same with her life. One day, if her “situation” changes, she plans to be ready. 

“I don’t really need documents to make me stronger,” she said. Having them “would just open doors.”

Related story: Dream deferred: Good kid's struggle with immigration policy