Hispanidad: War boosts U.S. citizenship

By GREGORY TEJEDA, United Press International   |   April 15, 2003 at 10:30 AM   |   0 comments

Jose Gutierrez was a Guatemala native who came to the United States as a teenager after his parents died, winding up with a foster family near Los Angeles. Last month, at age 27, he finally became a U.S. citizen.

The only problem is that Gutierrez, a corporal in the Marine Corps who was among the first casualties of the "Guerra con Irak," had to die in order to achieve citizenship.

President Bush signed a special order giving posthumous U.S. citizenship to Gutierrez and five other non-citizen soldiers (three of whom were Mexican) who were killed in combat, but his death could become the impetus for a sudden burst of new citizens from among the ranks of those serving in the military.

Defense Department officials estimate just over 37,000 U.S. soldiers (about one-third from California) are not U.S. citizens. Most entered the United States with proper visas, although about 6,000 are illegal because their visas have expired.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese believes all soldiers are entitled to U.S. citizenship, and finds it awkward to grant citizenship to individual cases after death.

"The very least we can do to assist our immigrant men and women serving the best interests of this great nation is to grant them citizenship without bureaucratic obstacles and delay," Mahony wrote in a letter urging Bush to support changes in federal law.

Politicians across the country are jumping on the bandwagon. In Chicago, alderman Edward Burke is sponsoring a resolution in the City Council praising Mahony, while his brother, Dan Burke, a state representative, has an identical measure before the Illinois General Assembly.

Taking more substantive action is Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who has a bill granting citizenship to all who enlist in the military, provided they meet existing Immigration and Naturalization Service requirements for English proficiency and pass the citizenship tests on history and civics.

"The right time to give them citizenship is when they are alive and not after they have died," Hastings told the Los Angeles Times.

His proposal is not the only one being considered by Congress.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has a reputation as a hard-liner against increased immigration, would only grant citizenship to immigrant military personnel who are killed in action. But his bill also would grant citizenship to surviving family members in the United States -- regardless of how they got into the country.

Center for Immigration Studies Director Mark Krikorian blasts Issa's bill for including family members, calling it "crazy" and a "ridiculous conclusion." Other immigration critics don't want any change, fearing a flood of non-citizens trying to enlist in the U.S. military to bypass the naturalization process.

But even if a few non-citizens enlist primarily for the purpose of becoming citizens, so what? Everybody who enlists in the military has his or her own reason for doing so. Desiring a chance to fight in combat is usually the farthest thing from a recruit's mind.

Many current military personnel, regardless of ethnicity or race, enlisted because it was their only realistic chance of improving their lives.

By her own admission, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the 19-year-old former prisoner of war who is likely to become a big hero of the Iraq war, enlisted in the Army to raise money for college to become a schoolteacher.

What makes school funding any more worthy a motive than achieving U.S. citizenship?

Besides, it's not a new goal. The military has always permitted non-citizens among its ranks. Historically, military service was seen as a way of greasing the wheels toward achieving U.S. citizenship.

Although soldiers were not given citizenship guarantees, they were allowed to apply after having been in the United States for three years, compared to the five-year requirement for anybody else wishing to become a part of this country.

During the Civil War, the U.S. Army was bolstered by the presence of Irish and German immigrants who fought against Confederates trying to tear the union asunder.

Today's immigrant soldiers and sailors express similar patriotic sentiments about their service, and citizenship can be a reward for someone who warrants an honorable discharge.

About the only difference between today's immigrant soldiers and those of the past is that their complexions are darker -- 18 sailors who took the oath of citizenship in San Diego Friday were from Belize, Cuba and Mexico, along with countries such as Nigeria and the Philippines.

So perhaps it's time to alter the rules to fit the realities of today's society.

It would make the United States look ridiculous in the future to have some of these Iraq war veterans slip through the cracks and not get recognized for their sacrifices, which has happened in the past.

To this day, there are Irish citizens who died while serving in the U.S. military 50 years ago during the Korean War whose surviving family members are still trying to work their way through the federal bureaucracy to get their loved ones declared U.S. citizens posthumously.


(Hispanidad is a weekly column about the culture of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States, written by Greg Tejeda, a third-generation Mexican-American. Suggestions for topics can be made to gtejeda@upi.com.)

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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