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

Bogus 'army unit' a reminder of how far immigrants are willing go for citizenship

A military naturalization ceremony held at a U.S. Army base in South Korea, December 2008
A military naturalization ceremony held at a U.S. Army base in South Korea, December 2008
Photo by U.S. Army Korea-IMCOM/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The story of David Deng, a Chinese immigrant from El Monte accused of charging fellow Chinese immigrants upwards of $400 to join a bogus "special forces" military unit that could lead them to U.S. citizenship - replete with bogus uniforms - might come off on one hand as this week's immigration news of the weird.

On the other hand, it's a relevant reminder of how far many immigrants to the United States are willing to go in order to become citizens.

The ranks of non-citizen soldiers in the U.S. military, often referred to as “green card soldiers,” have swelled in recent years. In order to attract more military conscripts, the federal government made a series of policy changes in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks that would make joining the military more attractive to legal-resident immigrants. This included a 2002 presidential order allowing non-citizens serving in the military to apply for expedited citizenship.

A few months ago, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that a record number of U.S. military personnel became citizens in fiscal year 2010, which ended last Sept. 30. The military personnel naturalized - 11,146 soldiers altogether - represented the largest number of foreign-born U.S. soldiers naturalized since 1955. From the press release:

Since September 2001, USCIS has naturalized nearly 65,000 service men and women, including those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In exchange, green card soldiers are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, as are citizens who join the military. 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. Gutierrez arrived in the United States without papers. His remarkable story from Guatemala City orphan to Marine was chronicled in a 2006 documentary.

Becoming a soldier as a means to legalization for undocumented immigrants, right now barred from enlisting, has also long been floated as a component to the Dream Act, proposed federal legislation that failed to clear the Senate in December. The legislation would have allowed conditional legal status for undocumented young people who arrived here under age 16, provided they attended college or enlisted in the military.