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

'Army unit' scheme a reminder of the military's pull for non-citizens

A military naturalization ceremony, July 2010. Photo by NOWCastSA/Flickr (Creative Commons)
A military naturalization ceremony, July 2010. Photo by NOWCastSA/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In case any sort of reminder was needed of how desperate many immigrants are for U.S. citizenship, one came yesterday in the sentencing of Yupeng "David" Deng, a Chinese immigrant from El Monte accused of charging fellow immigrants upwards of $400 to join a bogus “special forces” military unit that he told them would provide a path to citizenship.

Deng, who led the fake unit as its "supreme commander," was sentenced to three years in state prison in connection with the scheme after pleading guilty to various charges. He has been ordered to pay restitution to his victims, Chinese immigrants who believed his citizenship promise.

It wasn't the only reminder of the draw of the military as a path to citizenship this week.

On Tuesday, during a packed Senate hearing on the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM Act), retired Lt. Colonel Margaret Stock of the Military Police Corps and U.S. Army Reserve testified on how the proposed legislation is a valuable recruiting tool. The Dream Act would grant conditional legal status not only to undocumented college students brought to the U.S. before age 16, but to young people who enlist.

Among other things, Stock testified on how undocumented immigrants can't currently enlist, and talked about suggestions that the Department of Defense create a "military only" Dream Act, which she cautioned against. From her testimony:

Under the DREAM Act, all DREAM Act beneficiaries who attempt to enlist will have Conditional Lawful Permanent Residence, a status that is already recognized in existing enlistment statutes and military regulations. While some have suggested that the Department of Defense create a "military only" DREAM Act, such a program would present a greater security risk to DOD, would flood military recruiters with unqualified applicants for enlistment, and would require significant changes in military enlistment regulations and recruiting resources.

A “military only” DREAM Act would also contradict the fundamental premise of the All Volunteer Force, as many DREAM Act beneficiaries would be motivated to join the military out of a desperate desire to legalize their status, and not because they are truly interested in military service.

Even with the Dream Act as it stands, there has been opposition to the military aspect of the bill from some otherwise supportive voices because of the desperation factor, with anti-minority recruiting advocates worrying that some youths will feel coerced to enlist for fear of deportation.

But citizenship is a strong pull, as evidenced by those duped by Deng's fake army unit scheme, reportedly 200 immigrants altogether. And the laws have changed in a way that would make such a thing almost plausible. A 2002 presidential order allowed non-citizens serving in the military to apply for expedited citizenship, swelling the ranks of what are referred to as non-citizen “green card soldiers.”

A record number of U.S. military personnel - 11,146 soldiers - were naturalized as citizens last year, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.