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voiceofsandiego.org April 03, 2007

For Immigrants, Military Plows Path to Citizenship

By Rob Davis

Growing up in Argentina, Julian Verada soaked in Hollywood-generated images of troops sacrificing for the American flag.

Verada moved to the United States just a few months before the Sept. 11 attacks. In the dark days that followed, Verada's stepfather, an American citizen, hung a flag outside their home on Florida's east coast. Verada barely spoke English. But he remembers getting goose bumps that autumn as he cruised through town and saw that same red-white-and-blue gesture hanging everywhere.

"After Sept. 11, I saw how patriotic people were here," he said. "And I felt I needed to be an American, too."

Verada, now a member of the U.S. Navy, got his wish Wednesday morning at Naval Base San Diego. He and 58 other service members were sworn in as U.S. citizens in a ceremony atop the flight deck of the USS Cleveland, an amphibious assault ship. Standing on the deck after the 90-minute ceremony, Verada pointed to a massive American flag, stiffened by the warm breeze lofting off San Diego Bay, and said he still couldn't believe he was an American.

"I see [the flag] over here, and I belong to it," the 20-year-old seaman apprentice said. "And I feel good."

More than 40,000 non-citizens serve in the military. As the Pentagon has struggled with recruiting in the face of the unpopular Iraq War, it has added incentives such as easier paths to citizenship to help attract new members. The immigrants reaping those rewards were on full display for nearly 150 people Wednesday.

Legislation passed in 2003 allowed members of the military to serve just one year -- not three -- before they could become citizens. The new policy erased the $330 fee charged for citizenship applications. And it allowed citizenship to be awarded posthumously to service members who die in combat. Ninety-two members of the military killed in Iraq and Afghanistan have since received citizenship.

The legislation has enticed more service members to become citizens. While fewer than 1,000 immigrant service members became citizens each year before the Sept. 11 attacks, that number has now climbed to 7,000 annually. The United States offers legal citizenship to about 1 million people annually.

Defense analysts say the incentives may have some positive impact on recruiting, though no definitive statistics exist correlating their effectiveness in attracting new military recruits.

"Simple logic would suggest -- given the continued desire of immigrants to come to this country -- that it's bound to have some effect," said Thomas Donnelly, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Donnelly is an advocate for having more foreigners in the military.

"It's always been the case that immigrants have served in the military," he said. "It's almost been a rite of passage to full legitimacy in American society."

Some have criticized the military policy, though, saying that it's wrong to entice recruits with what can be an uncertain promise of citizenship -- "the one benefit for which they probably enlisted and for which they may be forced to risk their life," wrote George Mariscal, a professor of Chicano studies at University of California, San Diego, in a recent opinion column published by counterpunch.org.

At the Wednesday event, military public affairs officers emphasized the formality of the ceremony, which attracted media ranging from Riverside-based reporters to Al Jazeera, the Arab news channel. The lead message on a drafted sheet of talking points for officers interacting with the media highlighted the significance the military put on the event. Said one talking point: "This is a very special day."

"The military would make a big deal about it because it would increase propensity to enlist among non-citizens," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based defense policy website. "They're looking for every qualified recruit they can get. This is a way of raising awareness. [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] wants to stress that there are legal ways to become a citizen. I can see how they would all want to make this a good news event."

Some defense policy analysts have argued for opening military recruitment offices abroad, trading the promise of citizenship for four years of military service -- an American version of the French Foreign Legion.

But Pike said the lure of citizenship would not likely become a significant recruiting tool. "You've just got too many other people coming in the country too many other ways," he said.

Several immigrants who became Americans said they applied for citizenship to open doors in the military. Christopher Guy, a 21-year-old seaman born in the Philippines, said it would help him pursue an information technology career. Lance Corporal Jose Vasquez, a 28-year-old marine who was born near Monterrey, Mexico, said he needed citizenship to land a job as an aviation electrician.

They also said the ceremony was a landmark moment in their lives. Vasquez came to the United States as a 3-month old baby, growing up in Houston. He had permanent resident status -- a green card -- but not citizenship.

"I feel I was an American from the day I came to the United States," Vasquez said. "It was just something I needed to put in stone."

Guy's family emigrated from the Philippines in 1991, when he was 7 years old. He said the significance of citizenship ceremony was on par with his high school graduation. He admitted that he had hoped to throw his cap in celebration.

"I felt like I was an American defending my country," he said, "but I didn't have that full belief -- I wasn't a citizen. There was something missing."

Defense analysts see events like the naturalization ceremony as an embodiment of the historical role immigrants have played in the American military. From the vital French involvement in the American Revolution to the iconic Hollywood image of World War II squads filled with Irish, Italians and Jews, Donnelly said immigrants have been always integral members of the military.

"The broader American story is a story of immigrants," Donnelly said. "The same is true for the American military."

That tradition was repeatedly emphasized Wednesday. Rear Adm. Len Hering, commander of Navy Region Southwest, addressed the new Americans as "citizen warriors." The Navy mayor -- a first-generation American -- reflected on his own roots, recalling a childhood in which his grandmother spoke German to him so he'd become familiar with the language.

"That was yesterday," Hering said, "and today I never say I am a German. I am an American.

 


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