New recruits raise their hands as they take an oath outside the renovated Times Square Military Recruiting Station in New York on Nov. 10, 2017.  (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)

With a record low number of potential recruits and few of those willing to enlist, the U.S. military is trying to boost its numbers by targeting low-income and working-class communities of color for recruitment drives and altering how it markets military propaganda in schools to students of color who view enlistment as a potential means of escaping cycles of poverty. As national population demographics continue to trend toward an increase in non-white communities (especially among people under the age of 18), anti-recruitment advocates have noticed an alarming uptick in military efforts to attract Latinx students and their families in particular, reflecting the growth of Latinx communities across the U.S. 

Although Latinxs currently make up a smaller portion of the U.S. military, recruiters and their higher-ups are keenly aware that they are one of the fastest growing demographics at or reaching enlistment age in the general population and the fastest growing population in the U.S. military. In fact, according to the Department of Defense Latinx recruits currently comprise about 16% of all active-duty military personnel, and recruiters are shifting their strategies accordingly.

“The tactics have become more sinister—the military uses monetary incentives to sway students, especially Latinos and other students of color from marginalized backgrounds,” said Cassy Hernandez, an SDSU Chicano studies graduate and the current program coordinator for the nonprofit counter-recruitment organization Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (Project YANO), which works to counter the effects of militarism on people and communities by presenting alternatives to joining the military.

This intensified recruitment push has been especially visible in Project YANO’s home city of San Diego, which has 111,000 active-duty people stationed within the city and is also home to the nation’s largest concentration of military personnel. Organizers cite how various military branches have revamped their marketing campaigns to include Spanish-language advertisements targeting Spanish-speaking parents on television networks such Univision and Telemundo, the country’s two largest Spanish-language networks. Likewise, the military has also expanded their marketing campaigns to include radio and Spanish-language print publications. Unsurprisingly, recruiters have also noticeably increased their presence in schools and neighborhoods with significant Latinx populations.

The U.S. Army did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Prism regarding its recruitment of students in predominantly Latinx schools and communities.

Project YANO and its members have stepped up their own efforts to reach Latinx students and their families, as well as address the unique set of obstacles such as language barriers, disparities in access to technology and resources in an increasingly digital school environment, and the ongoing damage of the pandemic. Anti-military recruitment efforts rely heavily on working with teachers, school administrators, and other youth advocacy groups to provide an alternative point of view to the often romanticized pitch young people are given by military recruiters. Much of their student outreach comes from members who are themselves armed forces veterans. But they face an uphill battle against forces often beyond their control, such as an unstable economy, underserved municipalities, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the fears parents have for their children’s futures.

Playing on parents’ fears about citizenship and safety

High school students have consistently been a primary target demographic for U.S. military recruitment efforts, particularly young men from low-income neighborhoods and rural areas. As a result, the need for Project YANO’s outreach to Latinx communities in San Diego and beyond predates the military’s more recent move to specifically target Latinx recruits. Three-quarters of the organization’s board of trustees are fluent in Spanish, and Project YANO’s work has been key to publishing Spanish language literature and information on countering military recruitment in public schools throughout the country. More recently, the organization began distributing brochures tailored for Spanish-speaking parents, who can be susceptible to misinformation about the actual scope of risks and benefits of enlistment.

“Most high school-aged students have proficient English speaking skills—it’s the parents who can be easily misled by recruiters if they have very limited English skills,” said Rick Jahnkow, a former program coordinator for Project YANO and a current member of the organization’s board of trustees.

Parents who speak little English can be disarmed by recruiters’ persistence and charm while being sold a rosy picture of how military service could benefit their children. Janhkow says many recruiters will gloss over or even omit the risks that come with enlistment and mislead both potential recruits and their parents. Aside from the physical risks of being exposed to a range of chemical, physical, and environmental hazards during military service and the mental toll recruits often endure while operating under military authority, other issues such as racism, sexism, and sexual harassment and assault are still rife within much of military culture. 

The pervasiveness of this toxic culture within the military has been a particular concern for Latinas considering enlistment. In 2020, Vanessa Guillén, a 20-year-old Mexican American U.S. Army soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, was bludgeoned to death after reporting she had been sexually harassed by a fellow soldier. Guillén’s murder has been widely regarded as a turning point in the way sexual harassment claims are handled by the military. However, despite national attention and even President Joe Biden signing an executive order that established sexual harassment as a specific offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice earlier this year, critics say branches across the U.S. military still willfully ignore a permissive environment of rape culture. In 2021, reports of sexual assaults across the U.S. military jumped by 13%

Military recruiters also often dangle the promise of a potential pathway to citizenship for potential recruits who are non-citizens. Amid continually escalating anti-immigrant rhetoric around Latinx communities, even the faintest possibility of an expedited path to U.S. citizenship can appear enticing for immigrant service members. This tactic, however, is misleading—the military doesn’t and can’t grant U.S. citizenship directly to undocumented people. 

“Only people who have legal residency in the U.S. can join the military,” Jahnkow said. “Anybody who is undocumented would be violating the law if they succeed in enlisting because they would have to conceal that fact.” 

Every military branch requires that recruits must have either a Permanent Residence Card (I-551 green card) or a valid foreign passport stamped and processed for I-551 to enlist. Janhkow says this requirement also extends to undocumented people living in the U.S. Due to low enlistment, the Pentagon has signaled it is potentially considering DACA recipients for enlistment in the future. The only existing advantage that a legal resident would have by enlisting in the military is the possibility of having their application for citizenship sped up, but this isn’t guaranteed. 

“[Recruiters] often promise citizenship in a way that’s very misleading, even though they can’t fulfill that promise,” Jahnkow said. “Recruiters use every psychological trick that has ever been developed for the purposes of sales. But the military doesn’t grant citizenship and the military has absolutely no say in that matter.”

Enticing students into military service with money

The U.S. Army has been particularly hard hit by the lag in military recruitment numbers, most recently projecting it likely will fall short of its fiscal year 2022 recruiting goal by as many as 10,000 recruits. While the COVID-19 pandemic and the labor market have been cited as a reason for the current lull, long-term obstacles such as eligibility among new potential recruits have also driven military recruiters to adopt more desperate measures.

A 2018 study conducted by The Citadel, the American Heart Association, and the U.S. Army Public Health Center found that 27% of the U.S. population 17-24 years old didn’t meet the weight requirements to qualify for military service, making weight the second highest disqualifying condition among new army recruits from 2010-14. The report also showed that 47% of male recruits and 59% of female recruits also failed the Army’s entry-level physical fitness test while entering basic training.

“It’s a statistical fact that there are not enough students meeting the physical requirements or passing the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test, even as they’ve lowered the standards needed for students to be accepted into the armed forces,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez says that the increasing pressure on military branches to meet recruitment quotas has led to recruitment efforts using monetary incentives to sway students to sign on for military service. Financially tempting students is a very common recruitment tactic, one that is even more alluring for young people coming from struggling working-class families. According to the National Library of Medicine, Latinxs are still among the least educated groups in the U.S., and Latinx workers also earn the lowest median wages of any major racial group. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the median income for Latinx households in the U.S. is just under $52,000. And according to the Student Borrower Protection Center, roughly 72% of Latinx students take on debt to attend college. And with the average cost of a four-year college degree program costing upwards of $100,000, the military is well aware that the potential of being burdened and financially hamstrung by crippling student debt is another incentive for youth to enlist. Students from communities of color often opt for enlistment either as a means to pay for higher education later down the line or to sidestep it altogether. 

Because Latinxs tend to be poorer and have less education than the average American, their communities are more vulnerable to recruitment strategies that rely on financial pressures. Some view military service as a way to feel accepted in broader society, while others enlist for the same reasons that may attract any recruit: the money, job training, and education benefits that offer an escape from poverty. In June 2022, the U.S. Army began a 45-day “quick ship” bonus that would pay up to $35,000 to future soldiers who ship to basic training within 45-days of signing a four-year contract. In August, the U.S. Army increased the bonus to $40,000.

The prospect of having a college degree and the fear of financial debt have long been the “carrot” and “stick” wielded by recruiters to meet enlistment quotas, which explains some of the pushback against movements to pass student debt relief. Immediately following President Biden’s move to cancel up to $10,000 in federal student loans, Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican congressman for Indiana’s 3rd Congressional District and a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve tweeted that, “​​Student loan forgiveness undermines one of our military’s greatest recruitment tools at a time of dangerously low enlistments.”

The sentiment is a sharp illustration of what counter-recruitment groups have been saying for years—that both current and former military personnel use predatory practices targeting low-income students as a key strategy to maintaining a constant flow of military recruits. More crucially, it shows how the U.S. military can’t function properly unless it’s allowed to take advantage of the working class, requiring people to be so desperate and in debt that military service can be sold as their only way out.

“[Offering financial incentives to recruits] is a desperate measure that is designed to compel students from low-income backgrounds to sign on, creating a pipeline that fuels the military-industrial complex with even more bodies,” Hernandez said. 

However, enlistment can impact recruits’ lives long after their after military service and isn’t always beneficial, particularly for those in combat roles. Service can result in long-term injuries, both physical and mental. The Department of Veterans Affairs has long been plagued by inequities and gaps in providing adequate care for those wounded while serving. And according to a study published in the Journal of Rural Social Sciences, Latinx combat soldiers reported both higher prevalence and greater overall severity of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms than non-Latinx white combat soldiers.

Collaboration between student activists and educators can counter recruitment efforts

For many educators, countering viewpoints to military enlistment, especially on campuses that serve low-income communities and communities of color, is a breath of fresh air. Marco Amaral, a special education teacher at Castle Park High School in Chula and board president of the South Bay Union School District in Chula Vista, California, has seen military recruiters using many of these tactics on campus. 

“When the military does come to our campus, they bring a lot of neat gifts, from tote bags filled with pens and notebooks to shirts and other clothing,” Amaral said. “They’ll also come at least once a month with a lot of attractions. They’ll bring a pull-up bar, or have hyper-masculine competitions like who can do the most push-ups.” 

Amaral says military recruiters will also often focus their sights on academically underperforming students, particularly students with learning disabilities and those on IEPs (Individualized Education Programs). Amaral says recruiters view these students as the best kind of recruits to bark orders at and view them as the best type of soldier who would not be critical of what they are doing and not doing. 

“These students have a very real understanding of just how much society dislikes them and how much society is stacked up against them because of their disabilities,” Amaral said. “And unfortunately, these students oftentimes out of desperation are the easiest and quickest to jump on the military-industrial complex promise of a better future.” 

As military recruiters target Latinx and other low-income students with greater frequency, counter-recruitment advocates at Project YANO are collaborating with on-campus student-led advocacy groups like the Chicano student advocacy group Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), which organizes primarily in high schools and colleges to promote culture, history, higher education, and political consciousness within the Chicanx/Latinx community through student activism. 

Hernandez says Project YANO’s collaboration with local MEChA chapters has had a positive impact by informing Chicanx/Latinx students about the inherent risks and pitfalls of military enlistment that recruiters don’t make explicitly clear. Hernandez herself was first introduced to Project YANO through her advocacy in college organizing and activism done through MEChA

“I became aware of the connection to militarism resistance in the Chicano context, and the critical perspective of militarization and war,” Hernandez said. “I saw how important it was to be informed of the historical anti-war movements, including the resistance that came from earlier anti-war movements during the late ’70s and ’80s.” 

Hernandez says collaborating with student groups like MEChA is critical to reaching Chicanx/Latinx students because they provide additional spaces on campuses to develop critical consciousness about resistance outside of ethnic studies classes or Chicanx studies courses. As project coordinator, Hernandez facilitates connections between local high schools and the organization, encouraging youth to pursue and be informed about all possible options and alternatives to the military to create their own safe and successful adult lives. 

Despite the military’s increased targeting of Latinx recruits, organizers and educators remain dedicated to ensuring that students in both Latinx and other marginalized communities are fully informed about their options, understand the risks of enlisting, and have equal access to educational opportunities. Hernandez says that the military’s ubiquitous presence in society means counter-narrative efforts to military recruitment pitches in schools will continue to be critical. 

“The big obstacle is trying to combat this idea of a hegemonic military culture because it’s so prominent in the media, our surroundings, and the normalization of the military, especially as a large employer in places like San Diego,” Hernandez said. “Ultimately our hope is to help develop a critical response to militarism that sparks critical dialogue among students to engage with questions, and to the realities students will face while deployed should they enlist.”

Roberto Camacho

Roberto Camacho is a Chicano freelance multimedia journalist from San Diego, California. His reporting typically focuses on criminal justice reform, immigration, Chicano/Latino issues, hip-hop culture,...