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Illegal Immigrants: Uncle Sam Wants You (cont’d)

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Inouye referred me to Salvador Garcia, a student whose father had been deported, and who had been approached by a recruiter when he was a freshman at Garfield (He is now a senior). Garcia says the recruiter told him: “If you need papers, come and fight for us and we can get you some, and then you’ll never have to mess with immigration.” When he told the recruiter that he was born in this country, the recruiter responded, “Do you have anybody in your family that needs a green card, needs papers?” Salvador told him that his father, who had entered the country illegally from Mexico, had recently been deported. “If you join the military you can get your father back,” the recruiter said. “It’s not a problem, we can get him his papers and nobody will ever bother him again.” Salvador almost signed the enlistment form right then, but says he was stopped by the realization of “how it’s all connected–the war and Mexico and immigration.” He is now active in the counter-recruitment movement.

Recruiters in other parts of the country are making the same promises. In Chicago, for example, Jorge, whose entire family was illegal, joined the military because a high school recruiter promised that he and every member of his family would get a green card. Jorge actually did get a green card while he was in Iraq, but he became so angry and disillusioned when the military did nothing for his family that he went AWOL.

He is now back in Chicago, where a counter-recruitment activist named Juan Torres, whose only son was killed in Afghanistan, is working on getting him discharged from the military. Torres works with a number of counter-recruitment groups, including Gold Star Families for Peace and Military Families Speak Out, but mostly he works on his own, speaking at churches and schools around the country. He estimates that in the past year, close to 200 students have told him that they have been offered green cards for enlisting, and he says he personally knows of “five or six illegal families who have kids without papers in Iraq.” Torres talked one teenage girl into changing her mind just as she was about the sign the enlistment papers. He says that the recruiter told her, “Now you’re in trouble, you and your family, you will have to leave.” And Torres says he once asked a recruiter, the son of one of his friends, “How can you lie to the kids like that?” The recruiter told him, “Sorry, it’s my job, and I don’t want to go back to Iraq.”

Despite the mounting evidence of these recruitment practices, the Pentagon denies that illegal immigrants are in the military. “If there are any,” says Pentagon spokesman Joseph Burlas, “then they have fraudulently enlisted, and when they’re caught, they are discharged.”

That is what happened to Army Pvt Juan Escalante, whose illegal status was discovered while he was serving in Iraq. He was discharged and shipped home, and ICE began deportation proceedings against him and his parents, who had smuggled him into the United States from Mexico when he was four years old. However, Escalante’s unit commander wrote a letter on his behalf, saying he had served with distinction, so ICE reversed its decision and accepted his citizenship application. The deportation case against his parents, who also have two U.S.-born children, is still pending.

Another illegal immigrant serving in Iraq, Jose Gutierrez, was not so lucky. He was one of the first members of the U.S. armed forces to die during the invasion. Gutierrez had made his way to this country from Guatemala in 1996, at the age of 15, to escape the violence perpetrated by the death squads, only to be killed in Iraq by friendly fire. When the Pentagon announced his death, it came in the form of a carefully managed PR campaign that included a posthumous award of citizenship for Gutierrez, presumably to show that if an illegal immigrant manages to enlist and make it to Iraq, he will be rewarded. However, Gutierrez remains the only illegal alien on the U.S. casualty rolls whose real hometown is listed, while others who die are reported to be from Boston or Los Angeles, or wherever a recruiter finds them. In New York City, according to counter-recruitment activist Melida Arredondo, whose young stepson was killed in Iraq, DEP recruiters instruct illegal immigrants to write “New York City” as their “home of record address” on the enlistment form, and to write “pending” for their Social Security number.

Non-citizen soldiers

Why is all of this happening, when the enlistment and expedited naturalization of illegal immigrants serving in the armed forces is specifically authorized in U.S. law? An Executive Order signed by President Bush on July 3, 2002, provided for the “expedited naturalization for aliens and noncitizen nationals serving in an active-duty status in the Armed Forces of the United States during the period of the war against terrorists of global reach.” Under this order, any noncitizen in the military can apply for expedited citizenship on his first day of active duty. Not only is this order still in effect, but it has been codified in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2006, that authorizes the enlistment of (1) nationals of the United States; (2) aliens who have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence (green card); (3) residents of several former U.S. territories; and (4) any other person “if the Secretary of Defense determines that such enlistment is vital to the national interest.”

With the law so clear on this issue, the treatment of illegal immigrants in the military, both by the Pentagon and by ICE, is difficult to understand. “Apparently,” says Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, a nationally known immigration attorney and professor of military law at West Point, “nobody at the Pentagon reviewed the [regulations] on immigrants when the war started.” She adds, “If the Pentagon has any immigration attorneys, I haven’t met them.”

Stock speculates that if the Pentagon is aware of the law, it might be “afraid there would be a political backlash” if the use of immigrant labor for the war were discussed openly. In a later e-mail, she added, “And by the way, the Pentagon has ALWAYS had the authority to recruit foreigners in wartime. … The only thing that changed in January 2006 [when Bush signed the NDAA] was that Congress made it HARDER for the Pentagon to recruit foreigners who are not Lawful Permanent Residents. It used to be that ANYONE could join the military in wartime–even undocumented immigrants–but now the Service Secretaries have to find that an undocumented person’s enlistment is ‘in the vital interest’ of the United States.”

To illustrate her point, Stock noted that a section of the 2006 Immigration and Nationalization Law locates the naturalization of immigrants serving in Iraq firmly in the tradition of naturalizations “during World War I, World War II, Korean hostilities, Vietnam hostilities, [and] other periods of military hostilities.” During these wars, citizenship was granted solely on the basis of three years of honorable service or honorable separation from service (discharge), whether or not the person ever lived in the United States.”

“Recruiters trying to fill slots have historically pressed vulnerable people into service,” says Dan Kesselbrenner, director of the National Immigration Project, a program of the National Lawyers Guild. “But for some people it’s the only way they are ever going to get citizenship.”

What recruiters do not tell their targets, however, is that the military itself has no authority to grant citizenship. It forwards their citizenship applications to ICE, which will then scrutinize them and their entire families for up to a year. Created under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 as the successor to the law enforcement arms of both the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the U.S. Customs Service, ICE has been tasked “to more effectively enforce our immigration and customs laws and protect the United States against terrorist attacks.” ICE does this, as its website explains, “by targeting illegal immigrants: the people, money and materials that support terrorism and other criminal activities.”

Recruiters also do not tell their targets that citizenship can be denied for the very same past criminal offenses that the military may have overlooked when admitting them–such as being in the country illegally. Nor do they tell recruits that citizenship can be denied for any kind of dishonorable behavior, which includes refusing to participate in combat. The immigrant law that provides for the naturalization of illegal immigrants in the military clearly states, “No person who … was a conscientious objector who performed no military, air, or naval duty … or refused to wear the uniform, shall be regarded as having served honorably or having been separated under honorable conditions.” This means, according to Stock and other military law experts, that while applying for conscientious objector status is not, by itself, grounds for a dishonorable discharge, attempting to act on one’s beliefs by refusing to fight, wear a uniform or carry a weapon, constitutes disobeying an order, which is dishonorable behavior.

As the war in Iraq drags on and recruiters step up their efforts to enlist high school students–even demanding the right to come into classrooms–teachers, parents, and students themselves are doing what they can to slow the rate of enlistment of young immigrants who believe that military service is their path to citizenship. But as long as American citizenship remains a kind of salvation myth for the Latino community, military recruiters will be able to exploit their longing for it.

The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill (S 1639), which failed to pass the Senate in June, proposed to give legal permanent residency to any “alien who has served in the uniformed services for at least 2 years and, if discharged, has received an honorable discharge.” In other words, illegal immigrants have been in the military all along, and the government was getting ready to admit it. Now, with the bill’s defeat, they will be forced to remain hidden, and the sacrifices they have made for this country will continue to go unacknowledged.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I would like to thank Melida Arredondo for all of her assistance to this article.

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