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Immigrant Soldiers Serve the US
Dallas Morning News  |  November 28, 2006
They come from Mexico, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Colombia, Cambodia and a hundred other countries across the globe to find the promise of America. Increasingly they enlist to fight, and sometimes die, in America's wars.

About 69,300 foreign-born men and women serve in the U.S. armed forces, roughly 5 percent of the total active-duty force, according to the most recent data. Of those, 43 percent -- 29,800 -- are not U.S. citizens. The Pentagon says more than 100 immigrant Soldiers have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush and Congress, citing long-established wartime powers, streamlined the process by which immigrants in the armed forces could become naturalized citizens.

As of October, more than 25,000 immigrant Soldiers had become U.S. citizens as a result. Another 40,000 are believed eligible to apply. And roughly a third of noncitizens in the all-volunteer military come from Mexico and Central America.

"Latinos are very patriotic and see military service as a way to show their appreciation to America and to prove they can be 'real Americans,' " said Dr. Jorge Mariscal, director of Chicano Studies at the University of California at San Diego.

But he questions the attention that military recruiters give Latino immigrant neighborhoods.

"The efforts of recruiters tends to undermine community efforts to get these kids better civilian educational opportunities and pushes them into low-echelon enlisted positions with a higher risk of seeing combat," he said. "Until the playing field is level, we're only going to create a class of combat Soldiers drawn from immigrants and the working class."

Conservative critics fear that increased reliance on an immigrant-based military may create security problems and turn the U.S. armed forces into a "green-card army" where citizenship becomes just another recruiting tool.

"Service to the country is good. But my concern is that by taking in too many noncitizens into the military, we separate service and duty from citizenship," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration controls.

Future budget pressures and continuing enlistment needs could create incentives for the Pentagon to cut back on pay and benefits, he said. "If the Pentagon seeks to save money by seeking a cheap source of labor among noncitizens through accelerated citizenship, a real potential exists that we may turn soldiering into a job Americans won't do."

Worries that noncitizen Soldiers will lead to a day-labor military or about the commitment of immigrant Soldiers is baseless, said Margaret D. Stock, an authority on immigration law and part-time lecturer at the U.S. Military Academy.

"It won't happen. Noncitizens are a small percentage of the military, and that won't change greatly," she said. "Expedited citizenship is a reward for putting their lives on the line, not to buy their service. ... I've never met an immigrant who enlisted just for the possibility of citizenship."

Army Spc. Maria Juarez, 25, enlisted because she "wanted to give something back."

The Zacatecas, Mexico, native came to the United States with her family in 1993, settling in South Texas. Nine years later, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, she joined the Army as soon as she got her green card.

"I knew we'd be going to war, and I wanted to help this country that had given me and my family opportunity," she said.

After a year tour in Iraq, Spc. Juarez is ready to apply for citizenship.

"I feel like an American, and now I want to be a citizen, to have my complete rights, to vote, and be part of the system," said Spc. Juarez, a motor pool logistical specialist for Headquarters, Army South at Fort Sam Houston.

Her mother and father in San Juan are happy with her decision.

"They didn't want me to join the Army, but now they're happy because it lets me become a citizen," she said, adding that her parents want to become citizens, too. In a December 2004 study of immigrants in the military, "Essential to the Fight," Dr. Stock said noncitizen Soldiers make good sense for the country.

"The Army is having trouble finding high-quality recruits. In order to meet enlistment quotas, the Army relaxed its behavior and physical standards," said Dr. Stock, who is also a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve military police. "I'd much rather have a qualified noncitizen as a Soldier than someone native-born who couldn't have gotten in a few years ago."

Immigrants and noncitizens have served in all U.S. wars -- willingly and otherwise -- since the American Revolution. During the Civil War, the Union army recruited Irish immigrants off the boat.

Alfred Rascon, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, won the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism during the Vietnam War and later became a U.S. citizen. Gen. John Shalikashvili, a native of Poland, rose to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Noncitizen Soldiers do very well in military service, with attrition rates below that of citizens, according to a 2005 study by the Center for Naval Analysis. The 1.5 million men and women of recruitable age (18 to 24) who hold lawful permanent resident (LPR or "green card") immigration status provide an impressive pool of potential recruits, the study found.

The report concluded that "noncitizens are a vital part of our country's military. Demographic trends and new incentives make it likely their numbers within military ranks will grow. [They] will provide the service a more richly diverse force."

In 2002, Mr. Bush issued an executive order waiving the three-year waiting period for naturalization for noncitizens in the military. One day of active-duty service now qualifies a noncitizen Soldier to apply for citizenship.

A year later, Congress streamlined the naturalization process by waiving all fees, granting posthumous citizenship to any noncitizen killed in combat and extending eligibility for citizenship to surviving spouses.

Legislation passed in January potentially changed the landscape of noncitizens in the military. The new law by Congress provided uniformity for the five military services, allowing the various service secretaries to waive the requirement that noncitizen recruits hold lawful permanent resident immigration status if "such enlistment is vital to the national interest."

Officially, none of the services -- Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force or Coast Guard -- will accept any new recruit who is not a citizen or green-card holder. And noncitizens cannot enlist for any specialty that requires a security clearance.

Noncitizen recruits must pass a language proficiency test and go through extensive criminal background checks before enlistment. They must obtain citizenship during the first term of enlistment before they can re-enlist.

The extra scrutiny isn't lost on the noncitizen Soldier, Dr. Stock said.

"They know they have to clear more security and undergo more vetting than the U.S.-born Soldier," she said. "They also know that if they become naturalized, they can lose their citizenship if they receive a less-than-honorable discharge. They simply have to be better Soldiers than the native-born ones."

In the wake of Mr. Bush's 2002 order, a few illegal immigrants enlisted using forged documents. The military now accepts only the government-issued I-551 green card or confirmation by U.S. Customs and Immigration Service that a potential recruit has LPR status.

Recruiting immigrants -- legal or otherwise -- through the promise of citizenship strikes Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations think tank, as an idea whose time has come.

"I would go further and offer citizenship to anyone, anywhere on the planet, willing to serve a set term in the U.S. military," he wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece. "We could model a Freedom Legion after the French Foreign Legion. Or we could allow foreigners to join regular units after a period of English-language instruction, if necessary."

Mr. Boot has also suggested opening U.S. recruiting offices from, "Budapest to Bangkok, Cape Town to Cairo, Montreal to Mexico City." Under current law, military recruiters cannot open recruiting offices in foreign lands.

Such talk is anathema to Mr. Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.

"We're not at a point of concern yet, but if you get military units with 20 to 30 percent noncitizen, who just signed up for the benefits, what government will they uphold?" he said. "We have to be careful we don't open the doors to a pool of applicants who are not open to American values."

A noncitizen military creates loyalty problems for the very people charged with defending the nation, he said.

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Copyright 2014 Dallas Morning News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


 


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