Fighting for a New Homeland: US Army Lures Foreigners with Promise of Citizenship

By in Washington

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 US citizenship.

When Anna Maria Clarke, 26, was a teenager living in the western German city of Mannheim, she already had a weakness for smart uniforms, particularly on American soldiers, and for war movies like "Full Metal Jacket." It was an attraction that Clarke, a German citizen, felt early on and still feels today.

The parents of 25-year-old Julieta Ortiz immigrated to the United States from Mexico City, dirt-poor but ambitious. They worked hard picking strawberries in California, determined that their daughter would have a better life. Four years ago, Julieta suddenly found a way to that better life -- a difficult path, but one that would lift her out of the poverty of her childhood.

Jose Figueira, 31, spent much of his life listening to his father proudly recount his experiences as a soldier in the Portuguese army. Figueira, who grew up in Massachusetts, yearned to have something he could be just as proud of. "I wanted to prove that I'm a good citizen, that I'm willing to stand up for everything I love about this country."

They may have different reasons for joining the US Armed Forces, but all three are now among the more than 30,000 foreign soldiers fighting for America -- not as Americans, but as a Mexican, a Portuguese and even a German. Without its foreign soldiers, the United States would have trouble coming up with enough troops to meet the demand in Iraq. The foreigners, for their part, take the dangerous job mainly for its biggest reward: US citizenship.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has granted US citizenship to 32,500 foreign soldiers. In July 2002, US President George W. Bush issued an executive order to expand existing legislation to offer a fast track to citizenship to foreigners who agree to fight for the US Armed Forces. About 8,000 non-Americans have joined the US military every year since then.

The foreigners already represent 5 percent of all recruits. They even make up the majority of soldiers from some New York and Los Angeles neighborhoods. Four years and 3,800 US deaths after the beginning of the Iraq campaign, fewer and fewer American citizens are willing to fight in a war opposed by a majority of the US population. But despite the Iraq war's lack of popularity, US generals are demanding 180,000 new recruits a year.

The Pentagon already spends $3.2 billion a year on recruitment, even sending its recruiters to high schools to persuade 17-year-olds still a year away from graduation to enlist.

The US military learned long ago that foreign recruits are often the most dedicated Americans. Anna Maria from Mannheim, looking girlish with her red ponytail, had always dreamed about the US military. She was attracted to the American soldiers living in Germany, who seemed so relaxed about life. When she fell in love, it was always with an American GI. Her soft spot earned her the nickname "Ami-Anna" ("Yankee Anna"). Of course, she married a GI. She began secretly watching her husband's fellow soldiers doing their push-ups and sit-ups in the morning. Then she started exercising, lost 25 kilograms (55 pounds), passed the admission test and survived US Army boot camp in Texas.

Over 100 Germans

Now Airman First Class Clarke works in the human resources department at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. But the reality of the war shows up on her desk sometimes. Part of Clarke's job is to make sure that the bodies of soldiers killed in Iraq make it home as complete as possible.

Of course, Clarke expects to be sent to Iraq herself at any time. She says that she would even have enlisted without the promise of her new US citizenship, but it's important to her nonetheless. "After all," she says, "I could be killed for this country. It's nice to know that it's actually my country." There are currently 128 Germans serving in the US military -- more than from any other European country except Great Britain.

Most foreign recruits come from Latin America and the Caribbean. Latino rights groups in the United States, fearful that immigrants are being used as cannon fodder, object to the somewhat shady practice of offering citizenship in return for military service. But it happens to be a fact of life "that immigrants always have the more difficult jobs," says military expert Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. He is more concerned about the fact that many US citizens are already serving their third tours of duty at the front. Increased recruitment of foreigners, says O'Hanlon, could help lighten the burden.

O'Hanlon has even proposed recruiting potential new citizens for military service in selected countries, like the Philippines or Uganda, a proposal the Pentagon is considering.

Military recruiters have been particularly successful in immigrant communities. "Immigrants want to prove to American society that they are especially patriotic," says Bill Galvin of the Center on Conscience and War, a liberal anti-war organization. "The recruitment officers take advantage of this and promise citizenship in return." Patriotism was a strong motivator for Jose Figueira to join the US military. "I wanted to prove that the Americans could trust me," he says. "I wanted to prove that I belong here."

Sergeant Figueira, a member of the National Guard, is no military buff. He's realized, after serving in Iraq, that the reality of war is more than he expected. He talks about Baghdad, about roadside bombs and snipers. He also talks about the many hours he spent under enemy fire repairing the vehicles in his convoy after a bomb attack. He saw soldiers being killed, and the tears come to his eyes when he talks about the experience. Nevertheless, he says, he would return to Iraq at any time.

It's people like Figueira who demonstrate that immigrants "are indispensable for the military," says Margaret Stock, a lawyer and lecturer at the legendary US Military Academy at West Point. "They are more successful and they're less likely to give up," she adds. Besides, immigrants are a good investment for the military. "You get more bang for your buck," says Stock.

It is for these reasons that the military is now deliberately targeting immigrants for recruitment, especially those who speak Arabic or Farsi -- but also Latinos, the largest immigrant group in the United States. Corporal Julieta Ortiz, Mexican by birth, joined the Marines "because I wanted to make something out of myself and because citizenship means a lot to me." Being a US citizen helps her advance in her career, because, as she says, "I couldn't become an officer" as a foreigner in the US military. She is now an architecture student and wants to work for the government in the future. She glosses over the potential risks of serving in Iraq. "It's worth it to me," says Ortiz.

"People with no prospects see the military as a way out of poverty," says Jorge Mariscal, a professor of Latino Studies at the University of California, San Diego. The uniform means money -- money for college and money to pay bills. "Immigrants are taken advantage of," says Bill Galvin, who is against the war and advises soldiers in Washington who want to get out of the military before their contracts are up. "Those who have no other options are the most likely to end up in combat."

A US Flag, and a Certificate of Citizenship

One of them was Juan Alcantara, 22, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic who grew up in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood.

Alcantara survived his first year in Iraq, but then the recent troop surge began and, under an executive order issued by President Bush, Corporal Alcantara was told he would be kept on in Iraq for another six months. He had been scheduled to return home on June 28. His girlfriend gave birth to their daughter on June 29. On Aug. 6, a bomb exploded while Alcantara was searching a house in the town of Baqubah, north of Baghdad. Alcantara was killed in the blast.

His mother, Maria, now sits in her apartment in Washington Heights, wiping the tears from her eyes. She once told her son that the three most important things in life are: "God, family and your country."

She says that the army promised Juan "up to $50,000 for college, plus a $20,000 bonus, his choice of any of 200 jobs and a full-time position." He filled out the application on the plastic-covered couch in her living room. The mother says that she wept the first time her son came home in his new dress uniform. "He was so elegant, so handsome."

She prayed when he was ordered to go to Iraq. Was Corporal Juan Alcantara really convinced that he was defending his country? The mother nods. She truly wants to believe all the things the officers told her during the memorial service and at the funeral, when they handed her a US flag, the Purple Heart, an award for wounded soldiers -- and Juan's certificate of citizenship. Everyone at the ceremony assured her that her son was a hero.

Juan Alcantara is the 103rd foreign soldier to become a US citizen posthumously -- after dying in the Iraq war. His mother keeps the framed certificate and the letters of condolence in a blue plastic bag.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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