Noncitizen soldiers: the quandaries of foreign-born troops

Stuck in the Iraqi desert, fighting a war for a country not yet his, US Army Sgt. Leopoldo Escartin and other troops at Camp Dogwood hung a bit of home outside their desert-tan tent: the tricolor Mexican flag.

Making up about 7 percent of America's active fighting force, immigrants with green cards - Mexicans the largest group among them - are risking their lives not just for advancement within the Army, but for a leg up on the road to US citizenship. As America celebrated its 229th year of independence this weekend, immigrants offered their own breed of patriotic sacrifice, and their numbers are rising even as the Army has struggled to meet recruiting goals.

Their service is steeped in pride, but also in the paradoxes of allegiance inherent in serving under a foreign flag. "If I die over there, I'm not even dying for my own country," says Sergeant Escartin, who is based at Fort Bliss, Texas.

To the public, the role of immigrant soldiers is equally complicated: Even as the nation honors their exemplary service, there is ambivalence over how big a role noncitizens should play. Even the Declaration of Independence, in its litany of complaints about England, railed against the use of "foreign mercenaries." Today, the notion that America may be, in effect, hiring foreigners to do its dirty work, is an ethical quandary exaggerated by the quiet loosening of requirements - and increasing of benefits - for immigrants who will shoulder rifles for Uncle Sam.

"There are many stories ... about young men and women who signed up knowing that they would eventually gain their citizenship, who were subsequently killed," says Charles Peña, a defense-policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. "The question is: Was their ultimate sacrifice worthwhile?"

Recognizing the growing importance of immigrants in an Army that has struggled to meet its recruiting goals, the government is hastening citizenship for those who serve in the Armed Forces long term. There were 28,000 immigrant soldiers five years ago; that number has climbed to 39,000 today, not counting the thousands of foreign contractors hired since 9/11. So far, 59 immigrant casualties have been granted posthumous citizenship - and a new rule allows their families to use the deceased as a sponsor for their own residency papers. Even illegal immigrants who enter the forces under false pretenses have a chance at legal residency if they see combat.

"There's very few of us [Americans] ... who really want to go out and fight, and it's a smaller number today than ever in the past," says Max Boot, a defense-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, who has proposed a foreign "Freedom Legion" that would secure citizenship for foreign nationals fighting for the US, while helping the Armed Forces meet recruitment goals. Tapping into other cultures, he says, would "help the recruiting and it would bring some great people to the United States."

Some generals say that increasing the foreign presence in American ranks could dilute troops' sense of unity and common purpose. Yet many observers say foreign volunteers tend to be exemplary in the line of duty, and units of mostly Hispanic fighters are doing some of the heavy lifting in Iraq.

"[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.

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."

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