Non-citizens in the Line of Fire

The war on Iraq has brought to the fore the plight of non-citizen soldiers, who can die for their adoptive country but can't vote, can't serve in positions of trust in the military and can't have a military career longer than eight years.

According to the most recent estimates by the Department of Defense, about 38,000 troops, some 3 percent of the U.S. armed forces, are not citizens. One of the first casualties of the war was Jose Gutierrez, a Guatemalan immigrant from California who was orphaned in Guatemala, lived on the streets and traveled by cargo trains for thousands of miles to cross the border illegally into the United States.

Since Gutierrez died in combat, another seven non-citizens have also given their lives.

Lance Cpl. Gutierrez and Cpl. Jose A. Garibay were the first casualties of the war to get their U.S. citizenship posthumously, a story widely circulated in American media.

Much less publicized was the angry reaction by Fernando Suarez del Solar, from Escondido, Calif., who rejected the idea of applying for citizenship for his son Jesus, who died March 27 in combat. Suarez has a big problem with this war and the contradictions involved in sending into battle young men and women who can't vote or hold military jobs that require security clearance.

"I rejected the idea because Jesus didn't want to become a citizen when he had the chance, and I don't want him to get it posthumously because to me that doesn't mean anything. It's just a benevolent act by the U.S. government," Suarez told a reporter for La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles. "To me, it's like saying, 'Oh yeah, poor thing, give it to him.'"

Yet it seems that being a non-citizen soldier may put you faster into the line of fire. According to the Los Angeles Times, of the first 10 Californians killed in the war, five were non-citizens. One reason may be the internal rules of the U.S. Armed Forces. In a recent article in Hispanic Link news service, Sargent Oscar Villa, a U.S. Marine who immigrated from Ecuador at age 14, explains why immigrants in the military wear the same uniform but have "different options."

"Due to national security and many other restrictions, non-citizen members of the military have only a small, select number of Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) to choose from when enlisting or re-enlisting. In all service branches, immigrants and non-citizens are over-represented in the field of infantry... They are most likely to be called first to the front lines," Villa wrote.

The reason? Non-citizens can't get a security clearance. It's the same reason why thousands of people almost lost their jobs after 9/11 as baggage handlers and security screeners in U.S. airports, after a new law made it illegal for non-citizens (even those with papers) to hold those jobs. A judge later dismissed that measure as unconstitutional.

Being a non-citizen has become a dicey prospect for many immigrants in the past few years. Coming to America legally, even getting a green card (permanent residency card) is not enough to make one feel protected by the laws and the constitution.

Back in the mid-1990s, when the issue of "illegal" immigrants was hot nationwide and the undocumented had become a scapegoat for the society's economic woes and social ills, federal law stripped legal immigrants of the possibility of receiving help when they fell into hard times: they were prohibited from getting food stamps and other social programs.

After Sept. 11, the civil rights of immigrants were the first to go in the name of the "war against terrorism." Non-citizens lost jobs and constitutional protections. Non-citizens were held for questioning for months without the U.S. government releasing any information about them.

Non-citizens suspected of terrorism faced military tribunals, while citizens such as John Walker Lindh, suspected of the same crime, faced civil courts.

But the U.S. wants non-citizens in the Armed Forces: last year, President Bush signed an executive order making green card holders immediately eligible for citizenship if they signed up for service. It was a reward, he said, to those serving in the war on terrorism.

After that, the number of enlisted non-citizens started to grow, said Dan Kane, spokesman for what was formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now is the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Homeland Security Department. Between July and February, 5,441 military personnel applied to become citizens.

Believing this was their chance to cross the border legally, hundreds of Mexicans started showing up at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to offer to fight for the United States in exchange for American citizenship. They were turned away, disappointed that they were required to cross the border first, become a legal resident and then enlist in the military, much like Jose A. Gutierrez from Guatemala did.

U.S. Marine Jesus Alberto Suarez, from Tijuana, Baja California, will become a posthumous citizen despite his father Fernando's strong feelings about it, and for the same reason many other immigrants have become citizens in the past: the fear of losing rights.

It was reported recently by La Opinion newspaper that Jesus Suarez's widow, Seane Suarez, accepted the benefit for the security of their 15-month-old son Erik. "She decided to apply for posthumous citizenship because you never know about immigration laws, and she's afraid that their son might lose some rights for being an immigrant's son," Fernando Suarez said.

Pilar Marrero ( is a political editor and columnist for La Opinion, the nation's largest Spanish newspaper.

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