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.
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.
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.”
A desire to give back
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
Waiting period gone
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.”
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.
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.”
Such talk is anathema to [Mark] 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.
Historically, immigrants have made significant contributions to the defense of America:
21 percent of the recipients of the Medal of Honor in U.S. wars have been immigrants—716 of the 3,406.
A special regimental combat team made up of the sons of Japanese immigrants was the most decorated of its size during World War II.
Major U.S. weapons, such as a more advanced ironclad ship, the submarine, the helicopter and the atomic and hydrogen bombs were developed by immigrants.
After the passage of Section 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 143,000 noncitizen military participants in World Wars I and II, and 31,000 members of the U.S. military who fought during the Korean War, became naturalized American citizens, according to White House statistics.
SOURCE: American Immigration Law Foundation