Army Lures Foreigners
With Promise Of Citizenship
By Cordula Meyer
23 October, 2007
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
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
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
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
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2007
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