“Soldier Finds Minefield on Road to Citizenship”

10 Feb

By Miriam Jordan
Wall Street Journal

During 10 years in the U.S. Army, Luis Lopez served in Iraq and Afghanistan, won medals and had a commander laud his service as a “critical part of the success of his unit fighting the global war on terrorism.”

Mr. Lopez is also an illegal immigrant. In late December, the staff sergeant was discharged from the Army after applying for U.S. citizenship. And because of his illegal status, the 28-year-old native of Mexico couldn’t work as he waited for immigration authorities to decide if he would be granted citizenship or find himself at risk of deportation.

Mr. Lopez’s case reflects the federal government’s complex—and seemingly inconsistent—relationship with illegal immigrants in the armed forces. Illegal immigrants aren’t allowed to voluntarily enlist for active duty. Yet if they find a way to join, a section of the Immigration and Naturalization Act provides them a path to citizenship….

The 1952 immigration law says foreign nationals who have “served honorably” during wartime may be naturalized “whether or not [they have been] lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence.”

That statute drew attention in December when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) referred to it ahead of the defeat in Congress of the Dream Act, part of which would give some illegal immigrants a legal status that would enable them to enlist and eventually gain citizenship.

The Dream Act isn’t needed, he wrote, because “there is already a legal process in place for illegal aliens to obtain U.S. citizenship through military service.”

The 1952 law has allowed some illegal immigrants in the military to become U.S. citizens, though how many isn’t clear. And citizenship isn’t guaranteed: It can turn on decisions made deep within the military bureaucracy.

Pfc. Juan Escalante of Seattle joined the Army using a fake green card and fought in Iraq. In 2003, Pfc. Escalante confessed that he had used fraudulent documents. The military allowed him to stay, and the U.S. gave him citizenship.

In her four years in the Air Force, Liliana Plata of Los Angeles won medals and promotions. In 2008, she was discharged after the military discovered she used another person’s identity to enlist. In December 2010, U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services denied her application for citizenship. A spokeswoman said the agency cannot comment on individual cases.

Between September 2001 and September 2010, 64,643 members of the armed forces were naturalized by the agency. The agency doesn’t track how many came to the U.S. illegally.

The military supports the Dream Act, and military officials say more stringent scrutiny of identification has made it difficult for illegal immigrants to enlist in recent years. “We don’t knowingly allow illegal immigrants to enlist,” said George Wright, an Army spokesman.

But immigration attorneys say the practice is widespread, in part because of the lure of citizenship.

“Fraud enlistments are pretty common, and the government can deal with this in many ways. If they don’t want to discharge, there are a dozen ways to look the other way,” said John Quinn, an immigration attorney in San Diego who was previously involved in processing fraud enlistments for the Marines.

Luis Lopez was 8 years old when his parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico in 1990. They overstayed their tourist visas and fell out of legal status.

Mr. Lopez says he visited an Army recruitment office in suburban Los Angeles to enlist after finishing high school. The recruiter said he couldn’t join unless until he presented a green card or birth certificate, says Mr. Lopez.

A few weeks later, Mr. Lopez says he gave the recruiter a fake “birth abstract” that stated he was born in Los Angeles County. “That was it,” he said. “I went straight to Korea for a year.”

He was also deployed to Iraq twice and then to Afghanistan, from early 2009 to 2010. He collected more than a dozen accolades for his service. The paratrooper’s latest Army commendation medal was awarded for his service in Afghanistan, where he was section chief for an airborne field artillery battalion’s radar system that tracked incoming enemy fire.

Mr. Lopez says after returning to his base in Fort Richardson, Alaska, last summer he informed his supervisors that he was an illegal immigrant and was taking steps to apply for citizenship. He continued to report to work on the base.

In August, he began filling out immigration forms to rectify his status. One form required the personnel department on the base to attest that Mr. Lopez was serving “honorably,” to qualify him for citizenship.

Sharon Harris, chief of the division, raised questions over the fact he had presented a counterfeit document to enlist, says Mr. Lopez. In September, Ms. Harris checked the “No” box beside the statement, “Applicant served honorably or is currently serving honorably.”

In response to emailed questions, an Army spokesman wrote that Ms. Harris had checked “No” because Sgt. Lopez had “fraudulently enlisted.”

The Army initiated procedures to discharge him.

On Dec. 22, Mr. Lopez received his official discharge form, which states he was discharged due to “fraudulent entry.” Still, the form described his service as “honorable.” Mr. Lopez then submitted a copy of the form to immigration officials.

Mr. Lopez’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Frank Stanco, provided a recommendation letter for the immigration agency stating, “I strongly recommend that SSG Lopez [be] awarded United States Citizenship for his commitment and service to the United States of America.”

Mr. Lopez heard nothing about his application for citizenship until about 10 days after The Wall Street Journal put questions to immigration authorities. Late Thursday, his lawyer, Neil O’Donnell, received word that Mr. Lopez would be granted citizenship. He took part in a naturalization ceremony Wednesday.

Mr. Lopez could now try to re-enlist in the Army. After his ordeal, he said: “I’m still thinking about it.”

Write to Miriam Jordan at miriam.jordan@wsj.com



One Response to ““Soldier Finds Minefield on Road to Citizenship””

  1. Esmeralda December 1, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    I’ve always wanted to serve the country and get my education that way but I’m just as lost as many illegal immigrants. I was brought at three and am now sixteen. I’m now forced to go back to a country I know not. Mexican in the eyes of authority but and American by heart. The only difference between me and the person next to me is birth place.

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