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Immigrants find military a faster path to citizenship Print

Sept. 14, 2006

By JAMES PINKERTON - Houston Chronicle

SAN JUAN, TEXAS - A record number of immigrants are becoming U.S. citizens by serving in the armed forces. Some are granted citizenship posthumously after they are killed in battle. But most survive the perils of war and soon pledge allegiance to the red, white and blue.More than 25,000 immigrants have become citizens and another 40,000 have become eligible for citizenship through the military since President Bush signed an executive order in July 2002 speeding the process.

'We've had a record surge of applications," said Dan Kane, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington. Immigrants ''can apply for citizenship immediately, the day they are sworn in as members of the military."

The 40,000 immigrants in the U.S. military can become citizens after only a year of active duty instead of the previous three years, Kane said.

Only legal residents — or immigrants who entered the country illegally and then applied for residency — can enter the armed forces. And while the fast track to citizenship is a strong lure for some, it's not the main reason many Latino immigrants sign up, say military recruiters in the Rio Grande Valley.

''I'd put No. 1, the educational benefits," said U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Levi Garcia, a Brownsville recruiter and himself an immigrant from Nicaragua. ''No. 2, work experience, and three would be serving their country, or patriotism."

Citizenship benefits are a distant fourth, he said.

Kane agreed, rejecting the idea that immigrants join to become citizens.

"Immigrants who come into the military are doing it because of a strong sense of patriotism. They are embracing their adoptive country," he said. "When I hear people saying they are signing up to be citizens, it denigrates their service."

''They're there because they want to make a contribution. ... They want to give back to America."

Fast-track perk
Typical is the case of Delia Gutierrez, 18, an immigrant from San Luis Potosi state in Mexico. She said she didn't join the Marines for citizenship. She signed up out of gratitude to the United States.

But she'll also apply for citizenship, taking advantage of the fast-track perk.

Citizenship comes posthumously for some immigrants.

Since the 9/11 attacks, at least 80 immigrant troops have been declared U.S. citizens after being killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, U.S. officials say.

Julio Cisneros Alvarez, 22, a native of Reynosa, Mexico, had joined the Marine Corps and hoped that the U.S. government would help him pay for medical school.

But his plans were cut short in January 2005, a little more than a year after he enlisted. A machine gunner, he was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee during a nighttime patrol in Iraq.

A month later, in a somber ceremony at the U.S. immigration offices in Harlingen, his mother accepted a certificate granting him U.S. citizenship.

"Julio went because he wanted to be a doctor," said his mother, Senobia "Marta" Alvarez, 40, a South Texas cantina owner.

He also wanted to fight terrorism, she said, so that his mother and his two brothers, Marcos and Santos, would have a secure future.

A 3-foot-tall poster of the slain Marine in his uniform is taped to a long mirror behind the bar at the family's cantina.

"Hopefully, this county will recognize the sacrifice he and all the others made over there — and that people never forget them," said Alvarez, as she wiped tears from her eyes.

'I'm here for your security'
Laws passed in 2003 and 2004 grant citizenship to immigrants killed in combat, give priority status to surviving spouses and children, and waive processing fees.

The provisions have allowed about 1,000 service members to become citizens while serving at overseas military bases in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, at U.S. Embassies, and even aboard warships.

The citizenship ceremonies are sometimes held close to the battlefield. In July, for instance, 69 active duty service members took the oath of allegiance at a military camp in Balad, Iraq.

Leaders of some Hispanic groups say immigrants' sacrifices in war aren't always acknowledged, especially by those pushing to seal the U.S.-Mexico border.

"How can we tell our young men and women to fight overseas to defend our nation ... when Congress is falling over itself to punish their families, neighbors and friends by deporting them?" said Brent Wilkes, director of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Washington.

At least 18 troops from the Rio Grande Valley have been killed in Iraq , according to the Defense Department.

That's "way more" than the area's "fair share," Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa said.

The poverty plaguing South Texas, he contends, drives many Latinos to sign up.

Not long after Sept. 11, 2001, Alvarez, then 17, tried to join the military. But he couldn't because he was not yet a legal resident, his mother said.

After finally making it into the Marines and reaching Iraq, he called home and told his mother that he was there for her and the family.

''I'm here for your security, and for Marcos and Santos," she recalled him saying. 

 
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