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Misinformation on War, Service Confuses Immigrants

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Selective Service notice arrived, Edgar Ahumada Delgadillo was somewhat taken aback. “I figured they wanted to enroll me for the war in the Persian Gulf,” said Ahumada, 19, who arrived in San Diego a year ago from Guadalajara, Mexico.

He registered, as required by law, but didn’t bother to respond to a subsequent Pentagon mailing urging him to take advantage of “the many great opportunities available in today’s Armed Forces.” Ahumada explained, “I came here to work, not to fight in a war.”

In the fields and barrios of California, home to hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, many of whom only speak Spanish, the ubiquitous talk of a war on the other side of the globe has produced a profound sense of anxiety, a fear that many immigrants could be somehow dragged into a conflict that few understand.

Heightening concern are the occasional arrival of English-language letters from Selective Service officials and Pentagon recruiters.

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Adding to the prevalent uncertainty are exaggerated reports in the Mexican press, recounting false tales of mass wartime mobilization of Mexican citizens and other Latinos residing in the United States. Talk of an impending mass conscription is rife.

Some immigrant men of military age, fearing induction, have already opted to return to Mexico.

“A lot of people think they’re going to get called up,” said the Rev. Rafael Martinez, a Presbyterian minister who runs a social service agency serving immigrants in northern San Diego County, and has fielded numerous war queries from jittery men. “People are nervous, and they don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”

Although the apprehension is shared by U.S. citizens, immigrants and their advocates say the inquietude among newcomers is enhanced by a lack of knowledge about U.S. Selective Service procedures and the prospects for a resumption of the draft.

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Many new immigrants, intimidated by bureaucracies and often fearful of harassment or arrest, spend much of their time in tight-knit ethnic enclaves, blurring their knowledge about many aspects of U.S. society. Tales about large-scale call-ups, however apocryphal, tend to take on a life of their own, even during an era of a volunteer U.S. military.

“Tell me something,” Victor Calleja, a 29-year-old agricultural laborer from the Mexican state of Puebla, asked a visitor to a migrant encampment in northern San Diego County, a place of wood-and-plastic lean-tos, “if the Army recruits us, they don’t just march us directly to the war, right? There’s some training first, isn’t there?”

Calleja spoke in a makeshift kitchen as he and a friend listened to a Mexican radio announcer relaying the news from the Persian Gulf.

None of a dozen men interviewed at the encampment displayed even a rudimentary understanding of the U.S. military enrollment procedures; most assumed that some form of mandatory conscription was the norm, as it is in Mexico and much of Central America, although none had any idea if they would be called upon to serve.

“If they draft me, I’m going back to Mexico,” said Alfonso Ortega, 18, a legal U.S. resident via the amnesty program, who didn’t have a clue if he might be called for service. (Once he becomes a permanent legal resident, he would theoretically be eligible to enlist, but his inability to speak English would make him an unlikely candidate.)

“I’ll go to fight,” said Fernando Hernandez, 25, a native of the Mexican state of Guerrero. (Hernandez is an illegal immigrant, and therefore disqualified from service under current guidelines.)

U.S. law mandates that almost all male U.S. residents in the 18-25 age group--including illegal aliens, refugees, asylum-seekers and other foreigners--register for the Selective Service. The only exemptions for non-citizens are for certain temporary visa holders, such as tourists, students and members of diplomatic and trade missions. Selective Service registration was a prerequisite for all men ages 18-25 who applied for legal residence via the two 1986 amnesty programs.

Although illegal aliens are obliged to register, the Pentagon only accepts as soldiers those foreign nationals who are legal permanent U.S. residents, as well as meeting other general admission standards. (There is an exception for some Filipino Navy enlistees.) Thus, paradoxically, illegal aliens are required to register for a duty that, under current law, they can never serve.

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“I think the Selective Service is just digging deeper for prospective applicants,” said Charles Wheeler, director of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles.

In fact, undocumented men who do not register sometimes receive letters from the Selective Service, advising them of their legal responsibility. The letters can induce considerable apprehension.

“The reaction is often a sort of panic,” said Wheeler, who noted that many fear that the information will be turned over to immigration authorities. “And the mothers are naturally concerned now that their kids are going to be sent over to Kuwait.”

The Selective Service openly acknowledges that it hands over names and other data received about undocumented residents to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. (Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington, says that Selective Services notifies the INS of only about 20 such cases nationwide a month; immigration officials do not bother to track down the men, Austin said.)

Selective Service officials track unregistered men--citizens and foreigners, legal and illegal--via lists of names and addresses provided by a range of state and federal agencies, especially state motor vehicle departments, said Larry Waltman, a service spokesman in Washington. Service checkers routinely match their lists of those who have registered against these other records, automatically forwarding notices to those who appear to have failed to file.

“A computer match using government files has identified you as a man who may be required to register with Selective Service, but who may not have registered,” stated a form letter sent last fall to one undocumented teen-ager in the San Diego area. Failure to register, the letter noted sternly, could subject him to prosecution, as well as forfeiting future eligibility for government benefits and jobs.

According to federal law, failure to register is a felony offense, punishable upon conviction by a prison term of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000. Although it is seldom enforced, the Selective Service spokesman noted that there have been 20 prosecutions nationwide since 1980.

U.S. officials have said that no return to the draft is under consideration. But many immigrants, unfamiliar with the induction and mobilization procedures, immediately assume the worst--especially in wartime, and with talk of conscription on many lips.

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Along the U.S.-Mexico border zone, there has been a longstanding rumor--vehemently denied by U.S. officials--that Washington planned to shut down the border, thereby “trapping” military-age Mexican men in the north, where they were to be dragooned into the armed services.

Officials at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana have been kept busy denying this and other war-related tales. Many immigrants are said to have delayed trips to the north, frightened of hostilities and a draft.

“I hear they’re sending all the Mexican guys to the war,” remarked Santiago Manzo, a 30-year-old Tijuana resident who works for one of many transport firms that run a mini-bus shuttle between the border and Los Angeles. “I’m staying here,” said Manzo.


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