Thursday, Jun. 21, 2012

The Hard Path to Citizenship

Last week President Obama ordered Homeland Security to stop deporting young undocumented immigrants. The order essentially enacts part of the DREAM act which has been mired in debate on Capitol Hill. Now immigrants under 30 canstay and work, but they don't get a Green Card, which is necessary to join the military or get on the road to citizenship. I would make one big exception to that rule for any of those immigrants who join the military. Anyone who's willing to take the oath of enlistment deserves a shot at citizenship.

Over the past decade, tens of thousands of men and women with Green Cards have enlisted to fight die for a country that didn't yet recognize them as one of its own. In the decade after September 11, the country naturalized more than 65,000 men and women serving in uniform, the largest number of service members since 1955.

While the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has special expedited processing for military members and their families, there is no guarantee that they will become citizens of the United States. They still have to take tests to demonstrate that they can speak, read and write English, and show "a knowledge of U.S. history and government" that would likely surpass that of most natural born citizens.

Not only do military members promise to have an "attachment to the principles of the Constitution" as all new citizens do, they swear to "support and defend the Constitution," with their lives if necessary. And they do this even before that document affords them full protections as a citizen.

One of the most heroic examples of these so-called "Green Card soldiers" was a Marine named Sgt. Rafael Peralta. A native of Mexico who immigrated to the U.S., Peralta dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but wanted to serve his adopted country first. As soon as he got his Green Card, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and rose in the non-commissioned officer ranks. During the second battle of Fallujah in November 2004, an already wounded Peralta smothered a grenade with his body, saving the lives of at least four fellow Marines. He was nominated posthumously for the Medal of Honor, but was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award for gallantry.

But even those who don't make headlines have been an integral part of the military for the last decade. I know because as an officer in the Army I served with these men and women in Iraq. One of these soldiers was Staff Sgt. Claudius Stewart. A 6'6" basketball player, Stewart came to the U.S. from the Bahamas. After playing basketball at Williams Baptist College in Arkansas, Stewart joined the Army, married, started a family and deployed to Iraq in 2003. We deployed together to Baghdad in late 2005 for my first tour, his second.

In the middle of a very busy deployment, while leading a squad on dozens and dozens of combat patrols, Stewart completed the final steps to become a U.S. citizen. At the end of the summer, the commander of ground forces in Iraq hosted a ceremony at the Al Faw palace, one of Saddam Hussein's faux-opulent bastions sitting on the edge of his hunting grounds near the Baghdad Airport. Standing in the middle of a marble rotunda under an enormous fake chandelier in a monument to the antithesis to democracy, Stewart and dozens of other troops took the oath of citizenship. Then with a broad smile on his face, Stewart posed for photos before heading back to our camp and back out on patrol once again. Stewart served a third tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and he continues to serve his adopted country to this day.

We need more citizens like Claudius Stewart and Rafael Peralta. Even though the divisive politics of the immigration debate will certainly continue through the presidential election, one thing most people on both sides agree on is that those who served in the military have more than earned their place as American citizens. In fact, during the interminable Republican primary battle, Mitt Romney said, "I wouldn't sign the Dream Act as it currently exists, but I would sign the Dream Act if it were focused on military service."

The good news is that this is one part of the federal bureaucracy that's already working. The USCIS military program is a far less slow and cumbersome facet of an incredibly slow and cumbersome agency. That's as it should be. The men and women who fought in the wars of the past decade should expect their path to citizenship to be paved with efficient execution, not just good intentions. Now we need to extend that opportunity to the undocumented as well as those who have the coveted Green Card, so the young DREAMers who are willing to servethis country can become an official part of it.