GI Fights for American Dream

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GI Fights for American DreamProposal could fast-track full citizenship to a special class of recruit ­ undocumented enlistees who arrived in the U.S. before age 16. 
by Fernando Quintero

Left, Fort Carson soldier Army Spc. Chau Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam, is on the fast track to citizenship offered to immigrants who enlist in the military. A proposed law would extend that benefit to the children of illegal immigrants who graduate from a U.S. high school.

Proposal could fast-track full citizenship to a special class of recruit-undocumented enlistees who arrived in the U.S. before age 16.
With an accounting degree from a community college under her belt, Chau Nguyen looked forward to starting her career and some day becoming an American citizen.

Then Nguyen walked into an Army recruiting station in Boston, where she and her family had settled after moving to the United States in 2003.

"I saw pictures on the wall of helicopters and tanks. That was so exciting to me," said the 27-year-old native of Vietnam.

What most attracted Nguyen to the armed forces were the benefits, she said. Chief among them: a fast track to citizenship…

     

She is now a supply specialist at Fort Carson and just months away from becoming a U.S. citizen.

Normally, it takes at least five years of residency to gain U.S. citizenship. But since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the option has been offered to all legal immigrants who have enlisted in the military to become citizens in just six months.

That option, which is made available in a "time of war," has led to an increase in the number of immigrants enlisting in the military.

"Because of President Bush's executive order, which allowed all active duty immigrants serving as of Sept. 11 to apply for citizenship without waiting the usual five years, it has given many people waiting to become citizens another avenue," said Maria Elena Garcia-Upson, regional spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Nationally, nearly 35,000 immigrant soldiers have been naturalized since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, representing 2.5 percent of the total armed forces. In Colorado, more than 430 immigrant enlistees have applied for citizenship.

The military does not enlist illegal immigrants. But a proposal to grant instant legal status and eventually full citizenship to undocumented enlistees who arrived in the United States before age 16 has received support from Pentagon officials.

The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) is among the series of proposals contained in the failed immigration compromise bill. But some believe the proposal still stands a chance. Supporters say it would help boost recruitment during a time when forces are stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., has been one of the most vocal supporters of the act.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a chief sponsor of the bipartisan proposal, said his staff has "worked closely" with the Defense Department on the legislation.

"Largely due to the war in Iraq, the Army is struggling to meet its recruitment goals," Durbin said through an aide. "Under the DREAM Act, tens of thousands of well-qualified potential recruits would become eligible for military service for the first time. They are eager to serve in the armed forces during a time of war."

Eddie Lira, a senior at Denver's Montbello High School, is among them.

The 17-year-old native of Mexico was brought to the United States when he was just 4 years old by his parents, who crossed the border illegally. Because of his family's illegal status, he is unable to attend college at in-state tuition rates or to join the armed forces.

An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year, according to the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

Lira, who is a second-year member of his school's junior ROTC program, said if the DREAM Act passes he would sign up for the Coast Guard. He would also like to attend college and become an attorney some day.

"I have all kinds of plans and dreams. Joining the military would provide an open window for citizenship and to go on to college," said Lira. "I want to commit myself to something that would be positive in my life."

Nguyen said she looks forward to simply being "a good citizen."

For now, she plans to re-enlist and make the army her career.

She said her commitment to this country has been reinforced through her experience as a soldier, which included a tour of duty in Iraq in April 2006.

"It was a good experience. I learned a lot about their culture and their life, how they live and what they think. It made me think how the war in Iraq is like the Vietnam War. I talked to them about my family. How my father fought with the Americans for freedom," she said.

"I told them Americans are not taking anything away from your country. They're trying to give you the chance for freedom."

The DREAM Act

Under current law, only citizens and legal residents qualify to serve in the military. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) would allow illegal immigrant children who have grown up in the U.S., graduated from high school, and have no criminal record to legalize their immigration status by serving in the military or going to college. The proposal, which was first introduced in Congress in 2001, was part of the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that fizzled in June.

Last month, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a chief sponsor of the proposal, offered the plan as an amendment to the 2008 defense authorization bill. The bill was taken off the floor before action was taken on it. The bill is expected to be reintroduced after Congress reconvenes in September.


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