HANFORD, Calif. — Pablo Reyes-Morales walked into the Navy recruiting station here Thursday and tried to enlist.
But the 21-year-old, a native of Mexico who can now legally work under the new federal "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" policy, lacks a green card that's required for foreign nationals to join the military.
Under the "Deferred Action" policy, young undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. as children and who are in school or have completed high school and have no serious criminal record are eligible to get a Social Security number and authorization card from the Department of Homeland Security, allowing them to work.
Enlistment, however, is another matter, Reyes-Morales demonstrated Thursday. After his failed attempt, he spoke with reporters and urged Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to issue an order allowing undocumented young people with deferred action status to enlist.
"The only thing we want is the opportunity to serve the country," Reyes-Morales said. "Even though we weren't born here, we're patriotic. We're as American as anyone else."
The West Hills College Lemoore student is part of a national effort to draw attention to undocumented people being kept from serving. Potential enlistees like him in Texas, Arizona and New York also made public visits Thursday to recruiting offices, he said.
It's unclear whether efforts by Reyes-Morales and the advocacy group Let Us Serve will bear fruit in the nation's capital. The Department of Defense said in a statement Thursday that "it would be inappropriate to speculate" on whether Panetta is considering allowing undocumented residents to enlist under an exception to the green card rule.
The green card exception says the secretary of defense can allow service secretaries to enlist foreign nationals "vital to the national interest."
Congress could also pass a law authorizing military enlistments by undocumented residents.
But it's unclear whether Valley members of Congress would support waiving the green card requirement for noncitizen enlistees.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, who voted against the DREAM Act that would have allowed undocumented people like Reyes-Morales to have conditional legal residency, issued a statement Thursday saying "this is yet another example of why we need to overhaul an immigration system that has clearly broken down on many levels."
Newly seated Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said those willing to serve in the military clearly have strong moral fiber, but "unfortunately deferred action fails to provide any sort of long-term certainty for those without documents and has left many questions unanswered."
He called for "a mature, honest discussion about immigration."
But there's precedent to allow people who lack a green card to enlist.
The Department of Defense has waived the green card requirement for doctors, other health-care experts and speakers of "strategic languages," allowing thousands to join the military under the "national interest" exception, officials said.
The same should apply to undocumented people with a Department of Homeland Security deferral who want to serve, said Cesar Vargas, executive director of the Dream Action Coalition, which helped coordinate Thursday's enlistment efforts by Reyes-Morales and others.
The military would probably benefit in the long run by allowing people like Reyes-Morales to enlist, because obesity and other problems have reduced the number of potential recruits, said Margaret Stock, a lawyer and former Army officer who wrote the book "Immigration and The Military."
"I think the 'deferred action' people are a good pool of recruits and they have been pre-screened by the DHS," Stock said.
Getting into the military is usually a fast track to citizenship, Stock noted. Because most military jobs require citizenship, it's usually granted fairly quickly, she said.
Serving his adopted country, not getting a fast track to citizenship, was Reyes-Morales' No. 1 goal in trying to enlist, he said.
"I'm not doing it because I want something for me," he said. "I want to do it to give something back." Reyes-Morales said someday he might even like to run for public office.
He said his parents brought him at age 13 to Florida, where they had farm jobs.
His dream to enlist was launched two years later when he saw a Navy recruiting sign that said "A Global Force For Good." After high school graduation he tried to enlist in Orlando. He said he was "naive" about his citizenship status until the recruiter told him he was undocumented.
"The recruiter said something I'll never forget: 'Pablo, you can't serve your country because this is not your country.' "
He said he fell into a funk, then decided "to take the bull by the horns" and eventually started "National Pursuit of Dreams," an organization seeking to help people like him get the rules and laws changed for undocumented people.
A year ago, his family moved to Hanford to work in the fields, he said. He picked peaches to earn money for college, he said, and is studying political science and economics at West Hills.
His Social Security number and work authorization card arrived in the mail about a month ago, he said. But that's not enough for "military dreamers," Reyes-Morales said: "We're American at heart but not on paper."