Military's quick path to citizenship lures young immigrants
But critics say immigrants unaware of pitfalls, options
By Tal Abbady
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
October 18, 2007
In a sunbaked parking lot, Ruben Gomez, 17, takes a break from the pull-ups, crunches and rallying cries of a Saturday workout session for Marine Corps recruits. He has little doubt about why he's here, on the verge of a military career that may take him to Iraq.
“If I'm a part of the Armed Forces, I'll get my citizenship and I'll get more privileges,” said Gomez, a legal U.S. resident from Colombia.
For young immigrants eager to become citizens quickly, the military's lure is powerful. News of suicide bombings in Iraq, stories of service members deployed two and three times, and efforts by critics of the military to dissuade recruits do little to faze young people like Gomez. Many say the military's offer to expedite their citizenship applications, among other perks, is hard to beat.
That attitude is a tough challenge for activists trying to show Hispanics they have other options. As of May, 21,521 noncitizens were on active duty in the military, according to data from the Department of Defense. The number peaked at 37,000 in 2003, months after President Bush signed an executive order in 2002 calling for the military to expedite the citizenship process for military personnel. It cut the average waiting period to six months, down from an average of five years.
About 8,000 noncitizens enlist each year, according to military statistics. In 2006, 4,000 became citizens. Since the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, about 70 noncitizens killed on duty have received posthumous citizenship.
Gomez says that knowing what life is like in Colombia, a country wracked by a drug-fueled guerrilla conflict, also motivated him to enlist. He grew up hearing stories about his uncle, Roberto Diaz, a soldier in the Colombian army gunned down by guerrilla fighters in front of his family's Cali home in 1997.
“Where I come from, all we saw was violence,” said Gomez, who fled Colombia with his mother five years ago and became a permanent U.S. resident a year ago. “I was mad. I wanted revenge. I thought of joining the armed forces in Colombia. But then I realized I could join the fight for freedom here.”
Highly patriotic, he sees military service as an honorable and quick path to citizenship and a way to solidify his place in his adopted country.
His father, Wilson Gomez, 40, said he hopes his son will be able to sponsor undocumented members of the family after the teen becomes a U.S. citizen. He said Marine recruiters visited his home to talk to him and his wife about their son's decision since they needed parental permission for him to enlist.
“I think his enlisting shows that as immigrants, we're willing to do anything to get ahead, even putting ourselves on the line,” said Gomez, who works for a cleaning service with his wife.
The younger Gomez, who wants to join a combat unit, is in the Marine Corps' delayed-entry program, which helps prepare youth for boot camp. He will complete 13 weeks in boot camp once he graduates from high school in 2008.
Hernan Montellano, a Marine Corps sergeant born in Bolivia and raised in Argentina, recently submitted his citizenship application. He enlisted in 2001, eager to immerse himself in American military culture, and served three years in Japan. He works at the Marine Corps recruiting office in Fort Lauderdale.
“It's a high priority,” he says of getting his citizenship quickly. “The military opens a lot of doors. But it's not just for someone who wants citizenship or money for college. You have to want the lifestyle,” he said.
“I wanted the responsibility, the opportunity to travel the world and play with different weapons.”
Rich Hersh, of the Lake Worth-based group The Truth Project, which sends “counter-recruiters” to warn high school students of the military's pitfalls, said young Hispanics like Gomez are prime targets for recruiters selling the American Dream to working-class immigrant families.
“It's like all of a sudden they have a buddy,” Hersh said. “But that buddy is only interested insofar as they can get them on the bus to boot camp.”
In the past year, the Truth Project has boosted its efforts to educate Hispanics about the risks of enlistment. Volunteers visit Palm Beach County high schools targeted by recruiters and hand out Spanish-language pamphlets warning of extended tours in Iraq. They also inform students about other sources of scholarship money.
Peter Hernandez, 18, the son of Argentine immigrants and a Truth Project volunteer, has talked to dozens of teenagers about other careers they may consider.
“Why aren't we offering young immigrants citizenship if they become social workers or firefighters?” said Hernandez, a freshman at Florida Atlantic University.
Throughout the country, activists are concerned about the military's recruitment of Hispanics. They're critics of the proposed federal Dream Act, a bill that would open a path to citizenship for undocumented students who complete two years of college or military service. It has the Pentagon's support.
“Not a lot of immigrant kids have money for college tuition, so the vast majority of these folks attracted by the route to legalization will wind up in the military,” said Jorge Mariscal, a Mexican-American Vietnam veteran and director of the Chicano/Latino Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California in San Diego.
Capt Justin Mirgeaux, Marine Corps Recruiting Command spokesman in Fort Lauderdale, said he welcomes the counter-recruiters' criticisms.
“Kids from less advantaged countries see clean water, power and air-conditioning as privileges, and they know what it takes to make these things a reality for themselves and their families,” he said.
Talk of immigrant pride and dreams only goes so far for Sonia Diaz, Gomez's mother.
“I didn't want to sign the papers,” said Diaz, 38, of the parental consent forms her son needed to sign up. “You hear about dead sons coming home from the war. But I kept asking him, 'Are you sure?' He was. All I can do is support him.”
Tal Abbady can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4523.
ONLINE Ruben Gomez, 17, talks about his decision to join the military in a special video report at Sun-Sentinel.com/military