Fighting for Their Citizenship

Times Staff Writers

Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, one of the first Marines killed in combat in Iraq, fought and died for a country that he could not quite call his.

The young Guatemalan was among tens of thousands of noncitizens -- so-called green card troops -- serving in the United States military.

They are a fraction of the overall force, but their numbers have been growing, from 28,000 in 2000 to more than 37,000 today. California contributes nearly one of every three green card soldiers -- more than any other state. So far, at least half of the first 10 Californians killed in the war were not citizens.


In some Los Angeles neighborhoods, Army and Marine recruiters say 50% of enlistees are not citizens. Military officials say these recruits join the service for many reasons, including education benefits, job security and love of their adopted country. And now, enlisting puts them on a fast track to citizenship.

Enlistees “come in the day they receive their green card,” which documents their residency, said Sgt. Jorge R. Montes, a Marine recruiter in East Los Angeles. “They’re very thankful for what this country has to offer them. They really have an appreciation of what they have over here.”

Many are like Arian Cabral, a 23-year-old Filipino who ships out for Army basic training Wednesday. The Eagle Rock resident, who will be a chemical operations specialist, is so excited that he packed his “Go Army” bag more than a week in advance.

Cabral’s mother works in a factory that processes carrots. His father is a mini-mart cashier. Neither is a U.S. citizen. Arian Cabral plans to become a naturalized citizen as a soldier. When he starts to talk about it, his eyes fill with tears.

“I love this country,” said Cabral, whose family emigrated from the Philippines 13 years ago.

Cabral watches the war news avidly. He’s not deterred. “Just to call myself a citizen -- that’s big, that’s huge for me and my family.”

President Bush, who has described military service as the “ultimate act of patriotism,” has sweetened the incentive for recruits like Cabral. Citing the war on terrorism, Bush in July issued an order permitting green card holders who are on active duty to immediately apply for citizenship, waiving the usual three-year waiting time. The government also created a team to quickly process citizenship applications from the military. Such requests have since quadrupled, from about 300 a month to more than 1,300 a month.

Similar decrees during World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and the 1991 Persian Gulf War helped hundreds of thousands of immigrants become U.S. citizens.

The White House says the new policy is not aimed at boosting recruitment but is intended to reward those who volunteer in the war against terrorism. It’s unclear how many noncitizens may be signing up as a result of the program.

Naturalization gives some legal immigrants an additional incentive to reenlist: Only citizens can be commissioned officers or seek such elite assignments as the Navy SEALs.

Military officials acknowledge that the prospect of citizenship helps woo recruits. But “it’s not something where we go out and say, ‘Here, become citizens,’ ” said Lt. Bill Davis, a Navy spokesman.

Army Sgt. Arturo Ramos-Martinez said citizenship is seldom the most important consideration among the predominantly Latino enlistees at his Exposition Park recruiting station. “For people who were borderline,” he said, “this would roll them in favor of joining.”

USC professor Dowell Myers, an immigrant studies expert, said the large proportion of noncitizen soldiers from California reflects the state’s changing population.

The military has long been a route to upward mobility, he said, as well as a “great bonding force” for America’s newcomers. “The military takes all these people, throws them in ranks and treats them like interchangeable parts,” Myers said. The process instills “common goals that override ... differences.”

Petty Officer 3rd Class Filipp Asmolov, 22, an aviation boatswain’s mate, is aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf. Asmolov, who came to the United States from Ukraine with his family in 1993, said he feels like an American, even if he’s only a green card sailor.

“I came here when I was little. This is my home and my country, and I have to protect it,” said Asmolov, grease-smudged after a 12-hour shift maintaining one of the flight deck’s four plane-launching catapults. “This is where I live and where I will bring up my own kids someday.”

Like all young male citizens, most immigrants living in the U.S. are supposed to register with Selective Service when they turn 18.

Critics say the government is playing off the desire for citizenship to exploit these mostly poor immigrants -- from Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean -- for the war effort.

“Especially at a time when the doors for citizenship are closing, this may be one of few routes left,” said Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney. “It’s a tough but well-worn path. Is it fair? No.”

Citizenship promises to U.S. troops have not always been kept, said Gary Okihiro, a professor and director of the Center of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University in New York. Some Filipinos in World War II and Japanese Americans in World War I were never naturalized despite their service, Okihiro said. Hawaiians who served on the Union side in the U.S. Civil War were also jilted, he said.

Still, military historians say volunteers and draftees from other lands have served in every conflict from the American Revolution to the 1991 Gulf War. In recent years, immigrants have made up 4% to 5% of total military enlistees, and of those 95% are not naturalized citizens.

Gutierrez, the Marine from Lomita who was killed in the opening days of the war, signed up last year to earn tuition to study architecture. Federal officials say they have no record that he applied for citizenship.

Los Angeles City College student Winston Leiva is motivated by loyalty and respect. He came to Los Angeles at 14, joining family members who were escaping political oppression and economic hardship in Guatemala. Out of gratitude to America, the 29-year-old Koreatown resident said, he signed up for the Marines and is prepared to go to war.

“People like me, once we come here, we see anything can be achieved. There are no obstacles, except yourself,” Leiva said. “Why not help protect the basis of this country?”

Other recruits are more focused on a shortcut to naturalization. Some have spent years and thousands of dollars seeking citizenship through attorneys and immigration consultants, recruiters say.

Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who counts many Latino green card soldiers among his constituents, is pushing a bill to further smooth their way to citizenship. Applicants would still undergo interviews and background checks. But the government would waive fees and other out-of-pocket expenses that can total more than $1,000, Frost said.

“Many new arrivals are particularly patriotic, especially in the Hispanic community,” Frost said. “If they are willing to risk their lives ... they should be accorded priority status in becoming citizens.”

Spanish-language media coverage of Bush’s expedited naturalization program prompted rumors here and in Mexico that the U.S. would make citizens of anyone who signed up to fight. In fact, green cards, known officially as permanent resident cards, must first be obtained, and these generally require applicants to be sponsored by U.S. employers, have close relatives who are U.S. citizens, or qualify for political asylum.

Today, most of the people who walk into his East L.A. office don’t have green cards, said Montes, the Marine recruiter. “They say they heard on news that residency is not required.”

Officials at the U.S. Embassy and consulate offices in Mexico are receiving hundreds of inquiries a day from would-be soldiers. Despite three separate statements by embassy officials in recent weeks to debunk the rumor, “the calls keep coming,” said Jim Dickmayer, an embassy spokesman in Mexico City. “It speaks to the great desire that people have to get into the United States.”

Meanwhile, green card holders weigh their options.

Alex Thong, born in Hong Kong, agonized over whether to join the Army, mainly to expedite a citizenship application so he can one day become a police officer.

The 22-year-old Rosemead resident attends Pasadena City College and works part time as a parking lot attendant. If not for the war, Thong would join without hesitation.

“I want to serve, but I don’t want to die,” he said.

Thong waffled over his decision several times but finally enlisted Friday.

He will ship out for basic training this summer.

“To be part of America, to be part of society,” Thong said, “would mean that doors would open for me.”


Times staff writers Marla Dickerson in Mexico City and Carol J. Williams in the Persian Gulf contributed to this report.