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Noncitizen soldiers: the quandaries of foreign-born troops

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"[Foreign-born fighters] identify with the ideals of the United States and they are willing to fight and protect those ideals, even before they've secured all the liberties of citizenship," says Christopher Bentley, a senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesman.

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In part, that's because the military offers a happy end to a classic immigrant story, even as an average of two soldiers a day die overseas: Work hard, sacrifice, and let faith and toil bring their own rewards. At the same time, some parents of fallen immigrant soldiers blame their children's deaths on Army recruiters.

"There's a long tradition of immigrants helping the United States ... yet all the time not knowing where to place their allegiance," says Nestor Rodriguez, director of the Center for Immigration Research in Houston. "It's hard for parents, too, because they bring these soldiers here as young children, and when the worst thing happens, they question themselves: 'Did we do the right thing in coming here?' "

Recent naturalization ceremonies in El Paso and Atlanta included dozens of soldiers. Escartin, who emigrated from Mexico City when he was 12, became a citizen inside the El Paso convention center on Wednesday. Over 7,000 foreign-born military grunts are naturalized each year, processed through a special immigration office in Nebraska in one-fourth the time required for a regular application.

"Americans sometimes take it for granted what they've got," says Escartin. "It's all pretty much there for [American kids], and that's why we try harder, because it's not given to us."

In a country where some are skeptical of immigration, yet most are hesitant to reinstitute the draft, ethical questions abound over immigrants' role in the Army - chiefly, perhaps, the idea of dying for a flag that is not one's own, compelled by opportunities for advancement. With thousands of immigrants in Iraq and elsewhere, the US, critics say, is outsourcing its war.

Though the British still have their Nepalese Ghurkas and the French their Foreign Legion, critics say that for the US to hire more foreigners harks back to the Hessian auxiliaries who once fought American colonists on England's behalf. "It is pragmatic ... but it does reflect in the long run poorly on America to hire foreigners to do our fighting," says Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University.

For immigrant soldiers, however, the ethical lines aren't always so clear, even as they fly flags other than the Stars and Stripes, and pass up burgers and apple pie for the comfort foods of their homeland. Mr. Bentley at the DHS says most immigrant soldiers have been in the US since they were young, have grown up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and have acquired the language and mannerisms of Yanks. Many already feel like Americans; citizenship only makes it official.

"I've been here for a long time, I feel like this is my home," says Spc. Hector Bolly, a Mexican national who received his citizenship in El Paso on Wednesday. "If you think about it, you'd rather be in the US than Mexico - it's a better place over here, and when you're a citizen, it's easier to become whatever you want to become."