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SALT LAKE CITY — Hernandez was born in Mexico and came to the United States illegally with his parents eight years ago. He said it's tough living here without citizenship, but he remains optimistic.
"They should count us as equal, and not less than equal," he said.
His fellow ROTC cadets are American citizens. They think Hernandez and others here illegally should be allowed to serve.
"It's going to give them a chance and better hope to live a better life than they're living right now," said Johnny Estrada, a fellow ROTC cadet.
"Based on the past, people will classify each other based on their actions," said Robert Peralta, another cadet. "Not many of us will have a chance to prove what we are capable of and what we stand for."
But Latino community advocates are encouraged this step will lead to more opportunities.
"A door has been opened," said Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah. "An opportunity has been opened."
The program known as Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, or MAVNI, will be open to immigrants without a proper visa if they came to the U.S. with their parents before age 16. They must also be approved under a 2012 Obama administration policy known as Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, or DACA.
Immigrants who enter military service are eligible for fast-tracked U.S. citizenship. A number in the community, mainly people with "green cards," have achieved citizenship that way in recent years.
"They are part of us. They are one of us," said Yapias. "Everything they know is what we taught them here. They know more about Utah culture than they know about their home country."
Hernandez said he will keep trying to join the Navy. He has renewed optimism that all immigrants will be able to serve one day. He believes joining the Navy would enable him to prove that he loves his adopted country.
"It gives me more hope that I can join the military," he said.