It’s an all-American success story, and the winners are New Mexico, especially its young Latino males, but also the entire country.The main character in this story is Mr. Mucio Yslas, for 33 years state director for the Selective Service System in New Mexico.  The plot is one that could very well be a model for other states, where low registration rates threaten opportunities of young Latino men to live the American dream.

 

The Associated Press (AP) told a much different story only 13 years ago, when New Mexico’s registration rate was only 81 percent.That was seven points below the national average, ranking New Mexico 42nd among states. Today, New Mexico’s registration rate is 97 percent, consistently ranking New Mexico among the top states, year after year. What turned things around?

 

First, the question New Mexico no longer has to answer.  What if registration had stayed at 81 percent?   The answer is what happens wherever Selective Service registration is low. Unregistered men fall through cracks in the floor of the American Dream. They lose eligibility for all the benefits and privileges Congress has tied to Selective Service registration. These include student financial aid, federal employment and job training, and even citizenship.

 

Selective Service makes a great effort to get the word out to the Latino community.  The best tool for boosting registration, however, is one that cuts across ethnic lines.  It also just happens to be the cause of New Mexico’s turn around.   It’s the enactment of driver’s license legislation.Typically, driver’s license legislation, or DLL, involves a check-off box a young man selects when he gets his temporary license.  Then, within 30 days of his 18th birthday, he is automatically registered.  It’s not only as an effective way to boost registration, but a convenience for the registrant.But getting DLL passed is easier said than done. Quite often the biggest roadblock is simply  legislative inertia.  Mucio Yslas found himself right in the middle of it, but persevered.

 

Shortly after the AP story reporting New Mexico’s low registration rates, DLL survived to the last day of the session before a powerful lawmaker Yslas counted on for support killed the bill. Undismayed, Yslas started over again the next session.  In two years he had the support of nearly 30 state senators and members of the influential Navajo community. This time the bill passed. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed it into law on April 9, 2003, and the law became effective on July 1 of that year. New Mexico began its climb up the ranks of states with high registration rates. And young men in New Mexico stopped seeing doors to success slammed in their faces. Since then, other states have followed and have enacted their own laws in support of registration, including drivers’ license legislation.

 

This lobbying triumph wasn’t the first service Yslas has rendered to community and country.  He joined the Army National Guard before graduating from high school. After decades of service, including tours of active duty, he retired as a full colonel in 1983. His success as a personnel officer utilized his decades of experience as a school administrator at both the public school and college level.

 

His roots are solidly Mexican but his family story is as American as apple pie.   His father was born in Mexico City. His grandfather left the mines of Mexico to bring his family to the United States and work in a factory in Clovis. Yslas’ father opened a café and drive-in in Belen. Yslas said he is concerned with the fact that many undocumented Latino males don’t know about the registration requirement until it’s too late. He said if they knew about it, and knew Selective Service doesn’t share its data with immigration authorities, they would register.   Yslas said he is anxious to investigate why so many undocumented Latino men, especially in the southern part of New Mexico, aren’t aware of the federal requirement to register.

 

He began his tenure at roughly the time the registration requirement was resumed, which threw Yslas into the fire almost immediately.  He had to find board members for every county, a chore aided by the state’s national guardsmen.   His experience and connections in the state’s educational system were helpful. “I’ve really enjoyed meeting with people, recruiting board members,” he said, “and explaining why we need them.”

 

State Director Yslas acknowledges that board members should reflect the ethnic composition of the communities they serve.   In New Mexico, that means a high percentage of Hispanic board members. He said Selective Service Director Lawrence G. Romo has encouraged state directors and other field operatives to shape boards to match local demographics. This policy is based on the idea that any registrant applying for an exemption or deferment may reasonably expect that his case will be heard by people just like him.

 

This, in turn, is based on the belief that if ever the United States is forced to resume the military draft, it must be fair and equitable and seen as such. Selective Service is confident that all board members are trained to consider every case on its merits, no matter the background of the applicant. Nevertheless, perceptions are important. A Latino applicant might understandably expect less consideration from local boards comprised entirely of members of Northern European ancestry.

 

Selective Service considers itself fortunate to have state directors like Mucio Yslas, whose roots in the Latino community are as deep as his dedication to public service, and whose energy level is undiminished.