Posthumous citizenship for US troops killed in Iraq

By HELEN O’NEILLAP

 A young, ambitious immigrant from Guatemala who dreamed of becoming an architect. A Nigerian medic. A soldier from China who boasted he would one day become an American general. An Indian native whose headstone displays the first Khanda, emblem of the Sikh faith, to appear in Arlington National Cemetery. These were among more than 100 foreign-born members of the U.S. military who earned American citizenship by dying in Iraq.

Jose Gutierrez was one of the first to fall, killed by friendly fire in the dust of Umm Qasr in the opening hours of the invasion. In death, the young Marine was showered with honors his family could only have dreamed of in life. His sister was flown in from Guatemala for his memorial service, where a Roman Catholic cardinal presided and top military officials saluted his flag-draped coffin.And yet, his foster mother agonized as she accompanied his body back for burial in Guatemala City: Why did Jose have to die for America in order to truly belong?

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who oversaw Gutierrez’s service, put it differently.” There is something terribly wrong with our immigration policies if it takes death on the battlefield in order to earn citizenship,” Mahony wrote to President Bush in April 2003. He urged the president to grant immediate citizenship to all immigrants who sign up for military service in wartime.” They should not have to wait until they are brought home in a casket,” Mahony said.

But as the war continues, more and more immigrants are becoming citizens in death — and more and more families are grappling with deeply conflicting feelings about exactly what the honor means.

There are tens of thousands of foreign-born members in the U.S. armed forces. Many have been naturalized, but more than 20,000 are not U.S. citizens.” Green card soldiers,” they are often called, and early in the war, Bush signed an executive order making them eligible to apply for citizenship as soon as they enlist.

Previously, legal residents in the military had to wait three years. Since Bush’s order, nearly 37,000 soldiers have been naturalized. And 109 who lost their lives have been granted posthumous citizenship.

Some parents blame themselves for bringing their child to the U.S. in the first place. Others face confusion and resentment when they try to bury their child back home.

Immigrant advocates have similar mixed feelings about military service. Non-citizens cannot become officers or serve in high-security jobs, they note, and yet the benefits of citizenship are regularly pitched by recruiters, and some recruitment programs specifically target colleges and high schools with predominantly Latino students.”

Immigrants are lured into service and then used as political pawns or cannon fodder,” said Dan Kesselbrenner, executive director of the National Immigration Project, a program of the National Lawyers Guild. “It is sad thing to see people so desperate to get status in this country that they are prepared to die for it.”

Others question whether non-citizens should even be permitted to serve. Mark Krikorian of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, argues that defending America should be the job of Americans, not non-citizens whose loyalty might be suspect. In granting special benefits, including fast-track citizenship, Krikorian says, there is a danger that soldiering will eventually become yet another job that Americans won’t do.

And yet, immigrants have always fought — and died — in America’s wars. During the Civil War, the Union army recruited Irish and German immigrants off the boat.

Fernando Suarez del Solar just feels angry — angry at what he considers the futility of a war that claimed his only son, angry at the military recruiters he says courted young Jesus relentlessly even when the family still lived in Tijuana. His son was just 13, Suarez del Solar said, when he was first dazzled by Marine recruiters in a California mall. Cpl. Jesus Suarez Del Solar was 20 when he was killed by a bomb in the first week of the war. He left behind a wife and baby and parents so bitter about his death that they eventually divorced.

Today, his 52-year-old father has become an outspoken peace activist who travels the country organizing anti-war marches, giving speeches and working with counter-recruitment groups to dissuade young Latinos from joining the U.S. military.” There is nothing in my life now but saving these young people,” he says. “It is just something I feel have to do.” But first he had to journey to Iraq. He had to see for himself the dusty stretch of wasteland where his son became an American. In tears, he planted a small wooden cross. And he prayed for his son — and for all the other immigrants who became citizens in death.  

The Hays Daily News (summary)