SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- What if we offered illegal immigrants a path to citizenship that included a stint in the U.S. military?
Ruben Navarrette: Be wary of offering military service as a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The idea has been trumpeted by thoughtful people such as Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who thinks this is the time for a "freedom legion." He's talking about a unit of the military made up entirely of the foreign-born -- including illegal immigrants -- where the compensation would include U.S. citizenship.
About 70,000 foreign-born men and women serve in the U.S. armed forces, or about 5 percent of the total active-duty force, according to the Pentagon. Of those, nearly 30,000 -- or about 43 percent -- are not U.S. citizens.
Roping illegal immigrants into military service could accomplish two goals at once: helping alleviate the military's recruitment worries while giving the undocumented a chance to prove that their commitment to this country extends beyond a paycheck.
We're already talking about requiring illegal immigrants to learn English, pay fines, and return to their home countries to earn legal status. Why not, some say, raise the stakes and require men and women between 18 and 42 to serve a couple of years in the military to earn something even more precious: U.S. citizenship for themselves and their children?
The idea appealed to a reader in upstate New York who called me to gauge my reaction. I told him that I hadn't made up my mind, but that the concept did fit with my view that any conferring of legal status be laden with onerous conditions so that it really is earned. To earn it, illegal immigrants should have to do everything but walk across broken glass.
Still, I told him, I'm not sure how those who oppose comprehensive reform but support turning illegal immigrants into cannon fodder go about squaring that circle. Restrictionists and racists have argued that illegal immigrants are invading this country, and that they're a dangerous menace to society that is prone to all sorts of violent and criminal behavior.
Of course, many native-born U.S. citizens are just as menacing. But for those who believe that illegal immigrants are inherently violent, do they really want to give these folks military training and a M-16, to help them graduate from menacing to lethal? After all, assuming they survive their stint in the military, they eventually have to return stateside. Then they're our problem.
Consider the ghastly events in Newark, New Jersey, where three African-American students were killed execution-style and a fourth was shot in the head but survived. The accused ringleader is Jose Carranza, an illegal immigrant from Peru, who was previously charged with raping a 5-year-old girl and threatening her parents.
Twice indicted by grand juries, Carranza slipped through the cracks and was released on bail. Authorities say that the 28-year-old construction worker led at least four other individuals in attacking the youths with a gun and a machete. If convicted, Carranza could get the death penalty.
Glad to hear it. If half the things they say about this creep are true, Carranza belongs on death row. But guess what? He sure doesn't belong on an Army recruitment poster, or handling heavy artillery.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend