Congress promised foreign-born recruits citizenship — time to deliver
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President Trump was just in France with President Macron reviewing the troops. He loves the troops. He loves military parades, the hugeness and grandeur, the pomp and circumstance. He looked on with apparent admiration at Napoleon’s tomb. No doubt a bit envious. Likely imagining his own spectacular sepulcher in future Washington.

While he was there though in Paris, the president might have also stopped by the tomb of another famous soldier, the Marquis de Lafayette, a French citizen (and also American) who fought alongside and led American troops against the British in the American Revolution. Lafayette, as he is more affectionately known to Americans, became the fifth of seven foreign born individuals conferred honorary citizenship in the entire history of the United States.

An excerpt from the resolution by an act of Congress in 2002 granting his citizenship states the following:

“Lafayette … risked his life for the freedom of Americans … demonstrating bravery that forever endeared him to the American soldiers. ... Whereas (he) gave aid to the United States in her time of need and is forever a symbol of freedom: Now, therefore ... the Marquis de Lafayette, is proclaimed posthumously to be an honorary citizen of the United States of America.”

The young marquis fought for America because he believed in its ideals. At 19 years old, upon hearing of the colonists’ “quarrel” with the British, his “heart was enlisted” in our cause, and he “thought only of joining (his) colors to those of the revolutionaries.” Wounded in the leg by a musket ball at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, Lafayette was attended by General Washington’s personal doctor before returning to battlefields in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.   

As Der Spiegel reported in 2007, “More than 30,000 foreign troops are enlisted in the US Army, many of them serving in Iraq. Their reward for risking their lives for their adopted country is U.S. citizenship.” Because an Executive Order issued by then President George W. Bush in 2002 expanded “existing legislation to offer a fast track to citizenship to foreigners who agree to fight for the U.S. Armed Forces,” some 8,000 foreign born soldiers have enlisted annually since then.

One young U.S. Marine and one of the first “American” casualties of the Iraq war, was not actually a U.S. citizen when he died fighting alongside Americans in March 2003. As was reported by the Los Angeles Times, Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, just 22 years old, “was struck by enemy fire as he fought alongside his fellow Marines near the southern Iraqi city of Umm al Qasr.”

In fact, Gutierrez was not even in the country legally when he enlisted for service, having lied about his age to obtain a green card at a border crossing. But Gutierrez’s heart had also been enlisted, as was Lafayette’s. As the Los Angeles Times also reported, the young Marine "wanted to give the United States what the United States gave to him. He came with nothing. This country gave him everything." Gutierrez was granted his citizenship posthumously and laid to rest with honors by his fellow Marines in his hometown in Guatemala.

But while Major General Lafayette and Lance Cpl. Gutierrez are American heroes and continue to serve as examples of soldiering that both American and foreign-born soldiers continue to honor and be inspired by, foreign born soldiers likely do not wish to wait 200 years nor die in battle before they are granted their citizenship.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, “Approximately 511,000 foreign-born veterans of the U.S. armed forces resided in the United States in 2016, accounting for 3 percent of the 18.8 million veterans nationwide.” Of these thousands of foreign-born soldiers, how many more will have to die before they are granted their citizenship? How many more will be deported after serving honorably once their enlistment contracts have been expired?

Last month, as was reported in the Washington Post, the Pentagon began “considering a plan to cancel enlistment contracts for 1,000 foreign-born recruits without legal immigration status, knowingly exposing them to deportation, a Defense Department memo shows.”

This would be a travesty. Not only for those recruits, more than a few of whom may be endangered by these cancellations, having to return to now hostile lands, but for the credibility of the United States, its military, and the ideals for which it stands. Those same ideals which enlisted the heart and spilt the blood of French-born Lafayette. Those same ideals which enlisted the heart and sacrificed the life of Guatemalan-born Gutierrez.

If we make a promise to these foreign-born recruits, a promise of American citizenship, in exchange for their military service, then we have an obligation to honor that promise. It is a contract. One which requires those foreign-born recruits to risk their lives for yours. That is the deal. Either they go, or we go. And if we would rather not, then who are we to deny them the opportunity to have what we were born with? At least they are willing to fight for it. Let us now fight for them.   

Patrick J. Mondaca served in Iraq with the U.S. Army in 2003 as a military police sergeant. He is an adjunct instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York and his work has appeared in The Washington Post and USA TODAY.


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