Posthumous citizenship for US Latino and other subaltern troops killed in Iraq brings conflicted feelings for families
By HELEN O’NEILL
AP Special Correspondent
A young, ambitious immigrant from Guatemala who dreamed of becoming an architect. A Nigerian medic. A soldier from China who boasted he would one day become an American general. An Indian native whose headstone displays the first Khanda, emblem of the Sikh faith, to appear in Arlington National Cemetery.
These were among more than 100 foreign-born members of the U.S. military who earned American citizenship by dying in Iraq.
Jose Gutierrez was one of the first to fall, killed by friendly fire in the dust of Umm Qasr in the opening hours of the invasion.
In death, the young Marine was showered with honors his family could only have dreamed of in life. His sister was flown in from Guatemala for his memorial service, where a Roman Catholic cardinal presided and top military officials saluted his flag-draped coffin.
And yet, his foster mother agonized as she accompanied his body back for burial in Guatemala City: Why did Jose have to die for America in order to truly belong?
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who oversaw Gutierrez’s service, put it differently.
“There is something terribly wrong with our immigration policies if it takes death on the battlefield in order to earn citizenship,” Mahony wrote to President Bush in April 2003. He urged the president to grant immediate citizenship to all immigrants who sign up for military service in wartime.
“They should not have to wait until they are brought home in a casket,” Mahony said.
But as the war continues, more and more immigrants are becoming citizens in death — and more and more families are grappling with deeply conflicting feelings about exactly what the honor means.
Gutierrez’s citizenship certificate — dated to his death on March 21, 2003, — was presented during a memorial service in Lomita, Calif., to Nora Mosquera, who took in the orphaned teen after he had trekked through Central America, hopping freight trains through Mexico before illegally sneaking into the U.S.
“On the one hand I felt that citizenship was too late for him,” Mosquera said. “But I also felt grateful and very proud of him. I knew it would open doors for us as a family.”
“What use is a piece of paper?” cried Fredelinda Pena after another emotional naturalization ceremony, this one in New York City where her brother’s framed citizenship certificate was handed to his distraught mother. Next to her, the infant daughter he had never met dozed in his fiancée’s arms.
Cpl. Juan Alcantara, 22, a native of the Dominican Republic was killed Aug. 6, 2007 by an explosive in Baqouba. He was buried by a cardinal and eulogized by a congressman but to his sister, those tributes seemed as hollow as citizenship.
“He can’t take the oath from a coffin,” she sobbed.
There are tens of thousands of foreign-born members in the U.S. armed forces. Many have been naturalized, but more than 20,000 are not U.S. citizens.
“Green card soldiers,” they are often called, and early in the war, Bush signed an executive order making them eligible to apply for citizenship as soon as they enlist. Previously, legal residents in the military had to wait three years.
Since Bush’s order, nearly 37,000 soldiers have been naturalized. And 109 who lost their lives have been granted posthumous citizenship.
They are buried with purple hearts and other decorations, and their names are engraved on tombstones in Arlington as well as in Mexico and India and Guatemala.
– Marine Cpl. Armando Ariel Gonzalez, 25, who fled Cuba on a raft with his father and brother in 1995 and dreamed of becoming an American firefighter. He was crushed by a refueling tank in southern Iraq on April 14, 2003.
– Army Spc. Justin Onwordi, a 28-year-old Nigerian medic whose heart seemed as big as his smiling 6-foot-4 frame and who left behind a wife and baby boy. He died when his vehicle was blown up in Baghdad on Aug. 2, 2004.
– Army Pfc. Ming Sun, 20, of China who loved the U.S. military so much he planned to make a career out of it, boasting that he would rise to the rank of general. He was killed in a firefight in Ramadi on Jan. 9, 2007.
– Army Spc. Uday Singh, 21, of India, killed when his patrol was attacked in Habbaniyah on Dec.1, 2003. Singh was the first Sikh to die in battle as a U.S. soldier, and it is his headstone at Arlington that displays the Khanda.
– Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick O’Day from Scotland, buried in the California rain as bagpipes played and his 19-year-old pregnant wife told mourners how honored her 20-year-old husband had felt to fight for the country he loved.
“He left us in the most honorable way a man could,” Shauna O’Day said at the March 2003 Santa Rosa service. “I’m proud to say my husband is a Marine. I’m proud to say my husband fought for our country. I’m proud to say he is a hero, my hero.”
Not all surviving family members feel so sure. Some parents blame themselves for bringing their child to the U.S. in the first place. Others face confusion and resentment when they try to bury their child back home.
At Lance Cpl. Juan Lopez’s July 4, 2004, funeral in the central Mexican town of San Luis de la Paz, Mexican soldiers demanded that the U.S. Marine honor guard surrender their arms, even though the rifles were ceremonial. Earlier, the Mexican Defense Department had denied the Marines’ request to conduct the traditional 21-gun salute, saying foreign troops were not permitted to bear arms on Mexican soil.
And so mourners, many deeply opposed to the war, witnessed an extraordinary 45-minute standoff that disrupted the funeral even as Lopez’s weeping widow was handed his posthumous citizenship by a U.S. embassy official.
The same swirl of conflicting emotions and messages often overshadows the military funerals of posthumous citizens in the U.S.
Smuggled across the Mexican border in his mother’s arms when he was 2 months old, Jose Garibay was just 21 when he died in Nasiriyah. The Costa Mesa police department made him an honorary police officer, something he had hoped one day to become. America made him a citizen.
But his mother, Simona Garibay, couldn’t conceal her bewilderment and pain. It seemed, she said in interviews after the funeral, that more value was being placed on her son’s death than on his life.
Immigrant advocates have similar mixed feelings about military service. Non-citizens cannot become officers or serve in high-security jobs, they note, and yet the benefits of citizenship are regularly pitched by recruiters, and some recruitment programs specifically target colleges and high schools with predominantly Latino students.
“Immigrants are lured into service and then used as political pawns or cannon fodder,” said Dan Kesselbrenner, executive director of the National Immigration Project, a program of the National Lawyers Guild. “It is sad thing to see people so desperate to get status in this country that they are prepared to die for it.”
Others question whether non-citizens should even be permitted to serve. Mark Krikorian of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, argues that defending America should be the job of Americans, not non-citizens whose loyalty might be suspect. In granting special benefits, including fast-track citizenship, Krikorian says, there is a danger that soldiering will eventually become yet another job that Americans won’t do.
And yet, immigrants have always fought — and died — in America’s wars.
During the Cvil War, the Union army recruited Irish and German immigrants off the boat. Alfred Rascon, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, received the Medal of Honor for acts of bravery during the Vietnam war. In the 1990s, Gen. John Shalikashvili, born in Poland after his family fled the occupied Republic of Georgia, became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
After the Iraq invasion, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico fielded hundreds of requests from Mexicans offering to fight in exchange for citizenship. They mistakenly believed that Bush’s order also applied to nonresidents.
The right to become an American is not automatic for those who die in combat. Families must formally apply for citizenship within two years of the soldier’s death, and not all choose to do so.
“He’s Italian, better to leave it like that,” Saveria Romeo says of her 23-year-old son, Army Staff Sgt. Vincenzo Romeo who was born in Calabria, died in Iraq and is buried in New Jersey. A miniature Italian flag marks his grave, next to an American one.
“What good would it do?” she says. “It won’t bring back my son.”
But it would allow her to apply for citizenship for herself, a benefit only recently offered to surviving parents and spouses. Until 2003 posthumous citizenship was granted only through an act of Congress and was purely symbolic. There were no benefits for next of kin.
Romeo says she has no desire to apply. She couldn’t bear to benefit in any way from her son’s death, she says. And besides, she feels Italian, not American.
Fernando Suarez del Solar just feels angry — angry at what he considers the futility of a war that claimed his only son, angry at the military recruiters he says courted young Jesus relentlessly even when the family still lived in Tijuana.
His son was just 13, Suarez del Solar said, when he was first dazzled by Marine recruiters in a California mall. For the next two years Jesus begged the family to emigrate and eventually they did, settling in Escondido, Calif., where the teen signed up for the Marines before he left high school.
Lance Cpl. Jesus Suarez Del Solar was 20 when he was killed by a bomb in the first week of the war. He left behind a wife and baby and parents so bitter about his death that they eventually divorced.
Today, his 52-year-old father has become an outspoken peace activist who travels the country organizing anti-war marches, giving speeches and working with counter-recruitment groups to dissuade young Latinos from joining the U.S. military.
“There is nothing in my life now but saving these young people,” he says. “It is just something I feel have to do.”
But first he had to journey to Iraq. He had to see for himself the dusty stretch of wasteland where his son became an American. In tears, he planted a small wooden cross. And he prayed for his son — and for all the other immigrants who became citizens in death.