Foon Rhee: Military offers truce in immigration wars

11/11/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:39 AM

Kapil Tiwari was a teenager in Nepal dreaming of coming to America.

Then he won the visa lottery on his first try. Then he joined the U.S. Air Force. Less than three years after arriving on our shores, he stood tall in his dress blues to take the oath of citizenship.

When Tiwari swore to defend the Constitution "against all enemies, foreign and domestic" and promised "to bear arms on behalf of the United States," it meant more than mere words. He knew that during his six-year enlistment, he could be sent to war.

"If I have to do that, I'll do that because I'm a citizen of the United States now," Tiwari, 22, said after the ceremony at Travis Air Force Base.

In our nation's nasty shouting match over immigration, the fast track to citizenship for military service is one policy that politicians of all stripes can support. Because of the war on terror, military personnel have their own version of the DREAM Act.

Tuesday's election was about many big differences, but on this piece of the immigration issue, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney firmly agreed. Republicans who rail against "amnesty" for illegal immigrants have no problem with granting citizenship to those who sign up for the armed forces.

It's another war policy inherited from George W. Bush that Obama embraced, even as he has ended U.S. combat in Iraq and scheduled the pull-out from Afghanistan in 2014.

Today – Veterans Day – is a good time to remember that the burden of fighting the wars has fallen on a tiny fraction of Americans. To volunteer when you don't yet have all the rights and benefits of being a citizen is going beyond the call of duty. It's remarkable.

"These are people who have chosen to put their lives on the line for this country," says Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "That's a pretty profound statement of loyalty to country."

Obama echoed those sentiments during a Fourth of July citizenship ceremony at the White House, saluting 25 service members from 17 countries for displaying "the values that we celebrate every Fourth of July – duty, responsibility and patriotism."

So far, more than 140 have made the most profound statement of all, giving their lives for an adopted country that hadn't fully accepted them. They were granted citizenship posthumously.

Bush's July 2002 executive order, which officially declared the time since 9/11 as a "period of hostilities," paved the way for noncitizens in the military – about 24,000 are now on active duty – to immediately apply for citizenship.

Before the order, they had to have at least three years of honorable service before applying. Thanks to a 2003 law, the wait during peacetime will be reduced to one year once the war is over. Immigrants not in the military have to be permanent residents for five years, three if married to a citizen, to become eligible.

Also, those in the military don't have to physically be in the United States, and don't have to pay fees to apply. Military and immigration officials try to smooth the process. At the Sacramento field office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it takes about three months from applying to taking the oath.

While the quickest way to become a citizen, enlisting in the military is a long-term commitment – more time than the usual citizenship process. So naturalization through military service is still relatively rare.

Between October 2001 and June 2012, nearly 82,000 service members have been granted citizenship, many based in California. The peak of more than 11,000 in 2009-10 was the most since 1955. The Sacramento office, which usually holds a citizenship ceremony once a month at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield and once every three months at Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, has naturalized about 1,600 service members since 9/11.

The nationwide total, however, is only about 1 percent of all new citizens.

And the number is nowhere near the estimated 1.7 million who could qualify under Obama's executive order for a limited DREAM Act that took effect in August. It allows some people under 30, who were brought to the United States illegally before they were 16, to avoid deportation for two years and apply for a work permit. It does not put them on a path to citizenship, as the DREAM Act would do.

That proposal has been stuck in a deeply divided Congress, but in his victory speech Tuesday night, Obama clearly put immigration reform on his second-term agenda. Some Republicans, recognizing that their party needs more Latino support to survive, are expressing new willingness to consider changes.

Politics took a back seat to pride and patriotism two weeks ago at Travis as new citizens joined the melting pot that is the military and America.

Steeve Sylvain came here from Haiti and Angel Hernandez Acevedo from Mexico. Daniel Lara Morales, also born in Mexico, enlisted in March so he could "give a little back" to his adopted home and also become a citizen faster. With his citizenship and his bachelor's degree, he can try to become an officer.

Roselyn del Rosarrio Gregorio, originally from the Philippines, first applied for citizenship through her grandparents more than 20 years ago. Last year, she joined the Air Force at the suggestion of a sister who joined the Navy and became a citizen. A medical technician, Gregorio, 24, says she would welcome being shipped to Afghanistan.

"I want to save lives," she told me after posing for photos with her father and aunt in front of a flag.

The ceremony was done up right, and with military precision. A brass quintet in dress uniforms played patriotic tunes. Comrades wearing fatigues, who filled the meeting room, stood at attention for the national anthem. After the ceremony, they quickly filed through to shake hands with the new citizens. Nearly everyone left promptly, leaving uneaten most of the cake decorated as a flag.

Duty called – whether they had been citizens all their lives, or only a few minutes.

Editor's Choice Videos

 

Join the Discussion

The Sacramento Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service