Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Four things to know about immigrants in the military

Photo by US Army Korea - IMCOM/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A post yesterday told the story of the late Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta, whose name has come up in recent weeks after one Southern California legislator suggested a U.S. Navy ship be named for him.

Peralta, a Marine who died in Fallujah, Iraq in November 2004, was a Mexican-born immigrant who enlisted upon receiving his green card. And there are many others like him serving today. As a follow-up to yesterday's post, here are a few things to know about the immigrants who serve in the U.S. military, who might serve in the future, and military service members of color in general.

1) Non-citizens in the military: Often referred to as “green card soldiers,” non-citizens join the military at a rate of about 8,000 per year, according to a recent Department of Defense video. Last year, the Associated Press reported there were close to 17,000 non-citizens on active duty.

Part of the draw for non-citizen recruits is a faster track to citizenship than for civilians, the product of policy changes after September 11, 2001 intended to boost military ranks. A 2002 presidential order allows non-citizens serving in the military to apply for expedited citizenship. A record number of U.S. military members were naturalized last year, the most since 1955.

2) Who can join: While non-citizens can join the military, they must be legal permanent residents. Undocumented immigrants are barred by law from enlisting, the only potential emergency exception being a Secretary of Defense decision that "such enlistment is vital to the national interest," according to the U.S. Code. A passage from the code establishes the following rules:

(b) Citizenship or Residency. – (1) A person may be enlisted in any armed force only if the person is one of the following:
(A) A national of the United States, as defined in section 101(a)(22) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(22)).
(B) An alien who is lawfully admitted for permanent residence, as defined in section 101(a)(20) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(20)).
(C) A person described in section 341 of one of the following compacts:
(i) The Compact of Free Association between the Federated States of Micronesia and the United States (section 201(a) of Public Law 108-188 (117 Stat. 2784; 48 U.S.C. 1921 note)).
(ii) The Compact of Free Association between the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the United States (section 201(b) of Public Law 108-188 (117 Stat. 2823; 48 U.S.C. 1921 note)).
(iii) The Compact of Free Association between Palau and the United States (section 201 of Public Law 99-658 (100 Stat. 3678; 48 U.S.C. 1931 note)).
(2) Notwithstanding paragraph (1), the Secretary concerned may authorize the enlistment of a person not described in paragraph (1) if the Secretary determines that such enlistment is vital to the national interest.

3) What could change: The federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, proposed legislation that Senate Democrats have promised to reintroduce, would allow young undocumented immigrants to enlist in exchange for conditional legal status. The bill, a version of which cleared the House last December but was struck down in the Senate, would also allow young people who arrived in this country before age 16 to obtain conditional legal status if they go to college.

If the bill were to become law, Dream Act beneficiaries who choose the military route would have to serve at least two years and be honorably discharged in order to be eligible for permanent legal resident status.

Another federal bill addressing undocumented immigrants and the military was introduced last week by Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and is called the Military Families Act. The proposed legislation would allow legal status for the immigrant parents, spouses and children of U.S. military on active duty. The idea would be to prevent the deportation of undocumented or otherwise deportable family members of military service members.

4) Military casualties: Non-citizen soldiers were among the first military casualties in Iraq, among them Marine Lance Corporal José Gutierrez of Lomita, an immigrant from Guatemala who died March 31, 2003. The remarkable story of Gutierrez, who arrived in the U.S. from Guatemala City as orphan without papers, was chronicled in a 2006 documentary.

U.S. citizen and non-citizen soldiers of color in general are well represented among military casualties. According to the Spanish-language newspaper El Tiempo Latino, there have been more deaths recorded of Latino military members in Iraq than of other minorities in the armed forces.

But death in combat affects all. The last names of the military members most recently killed in action listed by Military Times are Lorenzo, Blevins, Krippner, Allers, Beattie, and Mora. Army Staff Sgt. Kristofferson B. Lorenzo, a Filipino-American, and Army Pfc. Ramon Mora, Jr., were both from Southern California.