Citizen soldiers, far from new homeland

Times Staff Writer

U.S. soldiers and Marines filed into the marble hall of Saddam Hussein’s former Al Faw Palace on Independence Day as foreigners at home as well as here. But they left the room as American citizens.

Standing under a glittering chandelier, 161 service members took the oath of citizenship Wednesday, the largest group to be naturalized at once in Iraq since the conflict began in March 2003. The mostly young, mostly male troops with last names such as Toledo and Serrano stitched across the backs of their caps vowed to “support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America against all enemies,” an abstract promise with a deeper daily meaning here.

“You chose to endure the same sacrifices as your fellow comrades in arms to preserve the freedom of a land that was not yet fully yours,” Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, military commander in Iraq, told the gathering in Baghdad. “It is the greatest of honors to soldier with you.”

About 800 personnel filled the room, including 585 service members reenlisting as part of the ceremony, with onlookers straining to see from crowded balconies and stairwells. Among them were presidential contender Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), both veterans, who flew in for the occasion.

Near the front of the hall, Pfc. Mark Ayson, with a black brace on one wrist and an M-4 rifle slung across his back, had tears in his eyes.


Ayson, 26, of Pensacola, Fla., was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 8. Less than a week before the ceremony, he was riding in a Humvee that was hit by a copper-plated explosive in the north Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya. A fellow soldier lost a his leg in the attack, but Ayson escaped with damaged eardrums, shrapnel in his right leg and a bruised left wrist. He was back to work within 72 hours.

Ayson said the experience underlines why he joined the Army, came to Iraq nearly a year ago and became a citizen on Wednesday.

“We’re fighting for a cause,” he said.

A large contingent of Mexican Americans from California milled around carrying U.S. flags, a gift from the government, along with their new citizenship certificates and pieces of red, white and blue sheet cake.

Pfc. Cecilia Rodriguez, 19, of Fresno, immigrated to California in 1997 from the town of Pastor Ortiz in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Her parents, two sisters and a brother are legal U.S. residents, but Rodriguez is the first in her family to become a citizen.

“It was a dream that my dad had for us, to come over here and have more opportunities,” Rodriguez said of her new homeland.

She said becoming a citizen will help her career, both in the military and afterward, when she hopes to become a federal agent. Noncitizens are ineligible for the military promotions and security clearances she is pursuing.

U.S. immigration officials swore in 325 service members as citizens during ceremonies across Iraq on Wednesday. As of May, 1,186 service members had become citizens in Iraq since the beginning of the conflict, according to the Defense Department.

Immigrants have long filled the ranks of America’s military, fighting in the Revolutionary War, Civil War and both world wars. The Navy recruited Filipinos from the late 1940s until the law changed in 1992, and they remain the largest nationality among noncitizen soldiers, followed by Mexicans and Jamaicans.

More recently, permanent residents, particularly the so-called Mexican “green card soldiers,” have drawn attention for their heroism and sacrifices in Iraq. Lance Cpl. Jose A. Gutierrez of Lomita and Cpl. Jose A. Garibay of Costa Mesa were granted posthumous citizenship after they died in the first three days of the war.

Immigrants’ military service has become part of the Washington immigration debate in recent months. Legislation that stalled in the Senate last week would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented youths who serve in the military for at least two years.

Although undocumented immigrants are ineligible for military service by law, some so-called “no-card soldiers” manage to join using false documents, said Margaret Stock, an Army reservist and part-time associate professor at West Point. Stock said many service members who hold green cards or are U.S. citizens have immediate family who are undocumented and would benefit from a provision granting them legal status, similar to laws that apply to Cuban nationals who enter the U.S. illegally.

The number of noncitizens serving in the U.S. armed forces peaked in 2003 at 37,000, after President Bush signed an order waiving the three-year waiting period for active-duty service members to apply for citizenship if they had joined before Sept. 11, 2001. Legislation passed the following year waived application fees for active-duty service members and allowed them to be sworn in as citizens overseas.

There currently are about 25,000 noncitizens in uniform, said Maj. Stewart Upton, a Defense Department spokesman. About 8,000 noncitizens enlist each year, he said.

Some immigrant advocates say that more should be done to speed citizenship for immigrant service members and their families.

“These are folks who are on the front lines defending this country, but at the same time they have to defend their families at home from deportation,” said Alvaro Huerta, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

But conservative experts such as John Fonte at the Hudson Institute in Washington say there is no need to speed immigrants’ citizenship applications to fill the military ranks.

“It’s not a job that Americans won’t do; soldiering has been a job Americans will do for 200 years,” Fonte said.

Wednesday’s ceremony was dedicated to some of the 126 noncitizen service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, 70 of whom received posthumous citizenship.

Sgt. Luis Ochoa, 35, of Fayetteville, N.C., said he wanted to avoid becoming one of those noncitizen casualties. He fought in Afghanistan and is in his second tour in Iraq.

“I wanted to die an American. I wanted to die happy,” said Ochoa, who immigrated came to the U.S. from Tijuana in 1984.

Ochoa had wanted his wife and four children to be with him Wednesday, to show off his new citizenship certificate stamped “July 4, 2007.” Instead, Ochoa stowed the certificate in his footlocker at Forward Operating Base Justice, northeast of Baghdad, where he returned soon after the ceremony -- not to hot dogs or friendly fireworks but to his duty as an American citizen.

“I got a patrol,” Ochoa said with a smile. “I got work to do.”