Army Soldiers
U.S. Army soldiers prepare to move between field exercises in Fort Drum, New York. Reuters/Lucas Jackson

The Department of Defense will let some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children serve in the military. The move, announced Thursday, comes as President Obama continues to face criticism from immigration advocates over his decision to delay executive action on immigration reform, but officials said it would affect only a very limited number of immigrants.

The Pentagon said its existing program, Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), would be expanded to include immigrants who also qualify for the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. Under MAVNI, the Pentagon had already been open to recruiting immigrants with legal status if they possessed special skills in high demand, such as medical expertise or fluency in certain languages. MAVNI allows only 1,500 recruits per year, and it’s still unclear how many immigrants under the expanded policy would eventually be included.

Immigrants without legal residence in the U.S. qualify for DACA if they arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16, have continually lived in the U.S. since 2007, and are enrolled in school or received a high school diploma, among other requirements. The requirements to join MAVNI would be even narrower, since officials would look to recruit those with some high-demand special abilities as well.

The White House had planned to expand the program to DACA-eligible immigrants earlier this year but delayed that decision to avoid any conflicts with congressional efforts to pass legislation on immigration reform this spring.

Immigration reform has since languished in the legislature, and Congress is not expected to revisit it until 2015. President Obama declared this summer that he would act unilaterally to pass immigration reform measures through a series of executive orders. But in early September, he decided to delay those orders until after the November midterm elections, inviting backlash from immigration reform advocates and business leaders who had hoped for measures to ease green-card backlogs.

Some observers considered the timing of the Pentagon’s decision as an attempt by the Obama administration to quell some of that anger. But some immigration advocates were not appeased.

“This foray into executive action is a fig leaf that pretends to help Dreamers but will, in fact, help virtually no one,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of immigration advocacy organization America’s Voice, in a statement. “Very few, if any, DACA recipients will even qualify for this program.”

“If today’s measure is any indication of the type of executive actions we can expect to see from the president after the elections, we are not impressed,” he added.