While waiting in the Guatemala City airport in January to board my flight to New York, I met Diego. It was Diego’s first time flying, and his first time leaving Guatemala. When I asked about his plans for when he reached New York, Diego told me that he planned to enlist in the U.S. army. Having just spent three weeks in a country in which the majority of the population was appalled by what they saw as another act of U.S. unilateralism (the first was in 1954, when the U.S. sponsored the overthrow of Guatemala’s second democratically-elected president, Jacobo Arbenz), Diego’s response was unexpected. Laughing at my confusion, he explained to me that enlisting in the armed forces would allow him to apply for his citizenship immediately, as well as bypass the five-year residency requirement that most immigrants must meet before applying.
The current media hype surrounding John Kerry and President Bush’s time served in Vietnam, or lack thereof, begs a more timely question — who’s fighting our current wars? More than 37,000 men and women in the military are noncitizens. At least 60,000 are recent immigrants. A study conducted last fall by the Pew Research Center, a press and public policy think tank, shows that Latinos make up 9.49 percent of the enlisted personnel but 17.74 percent of those directly handling guns. After the first two and a half weeks of the Iraq war, eight of the 71 dead had recently immigrated to the United States, and four of those eight were noncitizens.
In some ways, the numbers are not out of the ordinary. The U.S. military has long recruited immigrants to fight in combat. During the Vietnam War, 80,000 Latinos served, according to the Miami Herald, and the majority were not U.S. citizens. A current exhibit at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library chronicles the involvement of African American soldiers, deprived of their civil rights during peace time, who served in the United States Army. And this past year, the Army added more than $10 million to its recruiting budget for advertising aimed at Hispanic audiences.
Pushing for diversity in the workplace, including the U.S. armed forces, is respectable. For example, the campaign to enlist more minorities in the military gained momentum in 1996, when the Hispanic Access Initiative encouraged ROTC recruiters to target Latino citizens.
Yet capitalizing on new immigrants’ desire to obtain U.S. citizenship by providing them with incentives to serve in the military is misguided and coercive. President Bush’s executive order last July declared that non-citizens, like Diego, who serve in the war need not complete the five-year residency requirement before they apply for citizenship. Immigrants can now apply for citizenship the day they enlist the army, regardless of how long they have resided in the U.S. Since his order, the government has handled nearly 5,500 citizenship applications from military personnel — a 60 percent increase since the rule took effect eight months ago, according to the Washington Post.
Now, ROTC recruiters in the Los Angeles area are advocating for allowing the enlistment of undocumented Latinos. President Bush’s order openly encourages noncitizens to engage in combat. As Rodolfo F. Acuna wrote quite powerfully in an editorial published in the Miami Herald, “Undocumented Latinos can’t vote, and they can’t access many social benefits. They are in constant risk of deportation. But they soon may be able to die for President Bush’s war.”
Our failure to notice the irony of our current situation is demoralizing. During a time when non-U.S. citizens face constant threats to their civil liberties, they also encouraged to fight our misguided battles. And the paradox has been twisted even by new immigrants’ supposed advocates. Ben Johnson, the Director of the Immigration Policy Center, wrote in a letter to the L.A. Times, “All Americans should be proud that immigrants to this country are willing to fight for their adopted homeland. It is a testament to the strength of the principles on which this country was founded.” Yet the incentives created by the Bush administration for non-U.S. citizens to join the armed forces must prompt us to question whether we are witnessing “the meaning of gratitude and patriotism” or the meaning of coercion. There may very well exist non-citizens who want to join the armed forces and defend the international goals of the current administration. Yet the element of duress present in President Bush’s executive order should cause us to pause and consider the message we are sending to immigrants about what we are asking them to do to become a citizen of our country.
I wonder if Diego heard the story of his fellow Guatemalan, Jose Gutierrez. Gutierrez grew up an orphan in Guatemala and illegally crossed the California-Mexico border. On March 21, the second day of the Iraq war, Gutierrez was killed in a firefight near the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr. Though his remains were sent to his sister in Guatemala, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services ultimately granted Gutierrez his citizenship — one week after his death.
Benita Singh is a senior in Branford College. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.