April 25, 2003

Guest Editorial

Naturalizing the dead

Six immigrant soldiers from California have been granted citizenship for their heroic contributions to the U.S. victory in Iraq. Too bad they were in body bags when they received the honor.

The posthumous awards come as small reward to the families of the dead. To many immigrants — and to us — the whole idea is an insult. The New York family of fallen U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Riayan Tejeda, a native of the Dominican Republic, even spurned the offer. “He fought for this country for eight years, and they want to give him citizenship now?” his younger brother asked mournfully. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

What is especially galling is that the awards come against the backdrop of an ominous anti-immigrant drumbeat sounded by the Bush administration since Sept. 11, 2001. “There’s something terribly wrong with our immigration policies if it takes death on the battlefield in order to earn citizenship,” Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles wrote to President Bush this month.

Immediately after Sept. 11, the Bush administration abandoned talks with Mexican President Vicente Fox to grant a limited amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States. Increasingly, immigrants are viewed as a security threat. A sure sign: the decision to move the functions of the disbanded Immigration and Naturalization Service into the new Department of Homeland Security.

When an effusive President Bush granted citizenship to wounded U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Guadalupe Denogean on a ward at the Walter Reed Medical Center, he expressed “amazement” that “people would be willing to risk their own life and become a citizen after being wounded. “My fellow American,” he told Denogean, who has been here since he was 6. “You’re a good man.” “Gracias a ustedes,” he told his family.

Not everyone is as amazed as the president about the contributions of immigrants, in the military or elsewhere. “The military should not be the only way to prove your worth to your country,” said Ben Monterroso, a director of the Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles, which has been campaigning to get an amnesty for undocumented workers in his union. “The reality is that there are lots of different ways to prove you are a good citizen.”

Now a citizen, Monterroso came to the United States illegally from Guatemala in 1977 when he was 18. He worked for most of his life as a janitor in Los Angeles high-rises. Now his 18-year-old son is in the military, serving with a chemical weapons detection unit in Kuwait. “I’ve played my part,” said Monterroso. “Now my son is playing his.”

It’s likely that at least some of the 37,000 immigrants in the military signed up because it offered a faster route to citizenship. Beginning in the early ’90s, soldiers became eligible for citizenship after three years as legal residents, two years less than civilians. Last July, President Bush accelerated the process by allowing them to apply immediately for citizenship.

But to gain citizenship through death is a cruel fate. To truly honor the dead, President Bush should extend citizenship to all immigrants serving in the military who desire it. He must revise overly broad security initiatives that cast a cloud of suspicion on all immigrants, legal or not. He must reopen negotiations with Mexico on amnesty for undocumented immigrants who have made positive contributions to the nation.

A framed naturalization certificate that can be displayed at a soldier’s funeral is not enough. Not nearly enough.

Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, April 21, 2003

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