By Sari Zeidler, CNN
(CNN) - Dalia Nesmith says she always felt like an American, even as she grew up in a family of illegal immigrants in the United States.
Living between Mexico and the United States, Nesmith held on to her Mexican heritage, but also to her dream of defending the United States, a country where the worries of deportation and a family torn apart were real.
By the time Nesmith joined in the U.S. Air Force, she was a permanent resident - a requirement for her to enlist. For her, the military was a call to action, she said, not the promise of an expedited path to citizenship.
According to Matthew B. Tully, an immigration lawyer and lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were the catalyst for changes to the Immigration and Nationality Act that have made it easier and cheaper for military members to gain citizenship.
The process could become easier if the DREAM Act passes. It would allow for some immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally to serve in the military and gain citizenship. The prospect recently took center stage nationally when Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said he would veto the act given the chance - a position he defended on CNN’s "Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien."
Tully said immigrants who serve in the military deserve citizenship. “I’m in favor of fast-tracking for people who put their lives on the line for this country,” he said.
For Nesmith, joining the military was a career choice - citizenship was the reward she never knew how much she wanted.