PHOENIX (USA TODAY)- As a member of the Arizona Army National Guard, Gabriel Zermeño has been preparing for almost two years to be deployed oversees.
But the country he signed up to defend also could one day deport his father.
The reason? Zermeño, 21, is a citizen born in the USA, but his father, José Zermeño, 53, is an immigrant from Mexico who has been living in the U.S. illegally for more than 30 years and has faced deportation proceedings.
"At any moment, I could be oversees fighting for my country and he could be getting deported by the same country I was supposed to be fighting for," Gabriel Zermeño said.
Soon, however, the elder Zermeño may be able to legalize his status, possibly within a couple of months, thanks to a new policy from President Barack Obama's administration.
The policy, which went into effect Nov. 15, allows the undocumented spouses, children and parents of military personnel to be "paroled" into the United States.
Once paroled, undocumented relatives then will be able to apply for green cards without first having to go back to their home countries, where those who entered illegally face bans from returning to the U.S. for up to 10 years.
Thousands of military families may benefit, experts say.
The policy comes as Obama is under growing pressure from immigration-reform advocates to take steps on his own to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation as immigration overhaul remains stalled in Congress.
The policy has been hailed by military and immigrant advocates. They say the policy will improve military readiness by alleviating some of the stress and distractions of military personnel as they attempt to legalize the status of undocumented relatives.
"This has been causing a lot of problems for the military," said Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer in Alaska and retired military-police lieutenant colonel. She specializes in immigration cases involving military personnel.
In the past, the ability of military personnel to focus on their duties often was being weakened because of immigration problems that undocumented relatives faced back home.
Stock cited the case of an undocumented woman from Bullhead City, Ariz., that drew media attention in 2012. A sheriff's deputy stopped the woman in northern Arizona for making an illegal turn and turned her over to immigration authorities for possible deportation. She was later released after immigration authorities determined she was married to a U.S. Army soldier on active duty in Germany.
Stock said she personally has handled dozens of cases involving U.S. military personnel trying to legalize the status of parents, spouses and children.
Immigrants who want to receive green cards through petitions filed by U.S. citizen relatives are required to go back to their home country first if they entered the country illegally.
But in what Stock called a Catch-22, those who returned home faced being barred from coming back to the U.S. for up to 10 years. Even applying for waivers to avoid the 10-year ban could take many months.
As a result, many military personnel with undocumented family members were forced to devote large amounts of time and resources trying to legalize relatives, which took away from their military duties, Stock said.
Some military personnel became so daunted with the lengthy process and the possibility of a long separation that they simply didn't apply to legalize family members, leaving their undocumented relatives vulnerable to deportation, Stock said.
Now, undocumented relatives of military personnel will be able to apply for parole to remain in the country legally, opening the door to seek permanent residency, known as green cards.
Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Department of Defense spokesman, praised the policy, saying clarifications from the Department of Homeland Security will support the family members of people serving in the armed forces, as well as those who have served.
But the new Homeland Security policy could conflict with policies some branches of the military established that bar people from enlisting if they are married to immigrants without legal status. Those policies are based on administrative and security concerns that prevent immigrant dependents of military personnel from obtaining military ID cards if they lack legal status to be in the U.S., he said.
Those policies say "that uniformed service members, family members, or other eligible individuals are required to provide identity documentation in order to be eligible to obtain an ID card," he said.
The Marines and Navy have such policies. The Air Force does not. The Army did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2010, former Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano began an informal policy granting so called "parole-in-place" to undocumented parents, spouses, and children of active-duty military personnel.
But the informal policy was not being followed consistently in immigration field offices across the country.
As a result, many military personnel who applied for immigration parole for their undocumented parents, spouses and children still were having their cases denied even though they qualified, Stock said.
The new policy issued in a memorandum from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is intended to "reduce the uncertainty" that active-duty and retired military personnel face because of the immigration status of their family members, said Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
The policy also will ensure "consistent application" of existing policies, he said. The policy applies to immediate family members of active-duty military personnel, as well as reservists, including the National Guard, and veterans.
"Parole-in-place is granted on a discretionary, case-by-case basis, for urgent humanitarian or significant public benefit reasons," Boogaard said.
Threat of deportation
Only legal permanent residents and U.S. citizens can join the military.
Gabriel Zermeño is the only U.S. citizen in his family. He joined the Arizona Army National Guard after graduating from Apollo High School in Glendale, Ariz. He has trained as a heavy-equipment mechanic at Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Gabriel Zermeño also is preparing to become an officer in the Army through the ROTC program at Arizona State University, where he is studying political science.
Meanwhile, his father, José Zermeño, has been facing deportation after he tried applying for legal status and was denied on a technicality, according to his lawyer, Gerald Burns. A judge administratively closed his case in September but the case could be reopened in the future, Burns said.
José Zermeño raised Gabriel, along with his two older sisters and brother, as a single father.
In June, José Zermeño applied for parole to remain in the U.S. legally, citing his son's service in the armed forces.
But at the time, it was unclear if undocumented parents of military personnel qualified for parole. The new written policy specifically spells out that they do, increasing José Zermeño's chances that he will be approved, Burns said.
Gabriel Zermeño's sisters and brother all were born in Mexico and like his father are in the country illegally. Siblings of military personnel do not qualify for parole under the new policy. But Gabriel Zermeño's siblings already have received protection from deportation under Obama's deferred-action program, which allows young undocumented immigrants to live and work temporarily in this country.
José Zermeño should learn within the next month or two whether he has been approved for parole, Burns said. The only possible snag could be a misdemeanor DUI that José Zermeño received in the late 1990s, Burns said.
For Gabriel Zermeño, knowing his father has legal status would provide some peace of mind.
"If he were to get legal status or citizenship," the son said. "I could perform my (military) duty to the best of my ability instead of having to worry about him."