Despite the mounting evidence of these recruitment practices, the Pentagon denies that illegal immigrants are in the military. “If there are any,” says Pentagon spokesman Joseph Burlas, “then they have fraudulently enlisted, and when they’re caught, they are discharged.”
That is what happened to Army Pvt Juan Escalante, whose illegal status was discovered while he was serving in Iraq. He was discharged and shipped home, and ICE began deportation proceedings against him and his parents, who had smuggled him into the United States from Mexico when he was four years old. However, Escalante’s unit commander wrote a letter on his behalf, saying he had served with distinction, so ICE reversed its decision and accepted his citizenship application. The deportation case against his parents, who also have two U.S.-born children, is still pending.
What recruiters do not tell their targets, however, is that the military itself has no authority to grant citizenship. It forwards their citizenship applications to ICE, which will then scrutinize them and their entire families for up to a year. Created under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 as the successor to the law enforcement arms of both the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the U.S. Customs Service, ICE has been tasked “to more effectively enforce our immigration and customs laws and protect the United States against terrorist attacks.” ICE does this, as its website explains, “by targeting illegal immigrants: the people, money and materials that support terrorism and other criminal activities.”
Recruiters also do not tell their targets that citizenship can be denied for the very same past criminal offenses that the military may have overlooked when admitting them—such as being in the country illegally.
As the war in Iraq drags on and recruiters step up their efforts to enlist high school students—even demanding the right to come into classrooms—teachers, parents, and students themselves are doing what they can to slow the rate of enlistment of young immigrants who believe that military service is their path to citizenship. But as long as American citizenship remains a kind of salvation myth for the Latino community, military recruiters will be able to exploit their longing for it.
The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill (S 1639), which failed to pass the Senate in June, proposed to give legal permanent residency to any “alien who has served in the uniformed services for at least 2 years and, if discharged, has received an honorable discharge.” In other words, illegal immigrants have been in the military all along, and the government was getting ready to admit it. Now, with the bill’s defeat, they will be forced to remain hidden, and the sacrifices they have made for this country will continue to go unacknowledged.