Fight­ing to Be Amer­i­can

The mil­i­tary’s im­per­iled path to cit­i­zen­ship

Smithsonian Magazine - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Christie Hemm Klok

Osum­mer morn­ing in down­town N A SWELTERING Los An­ge­les, more than 8,000 men, women and chil­dren made their way to the L.A. Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. With street ven­dors hawk­ing an ar­ray of cit­i­zen­ship-re­lated mer­chan­dise (in­clud­ing fast-sell­ing em­bossed cov­ers for nat­u­ral­iza­tion cer­tifi­cates), park­ing lot at­ten­dants whistling and wav­ing tow­els to woo mo­torists, and groups tail­gat­ing with break­fast bur­ri­tos and iced cof­fees, the fes­tive at­mos­phere felt more like the run-up to a foot­ball game than a le­gal pro­ceed­ing.

Among the thou­sands of peo­ple who would take part in that day’s two suc­ces­sive swear­ing-in cer­e­monies and be­come nat­u­ral­ized U.S. ci­ti­zens were 25 who had al­ready made a big com­mit­ment to the na­tion as ser­vice mem­bers—in­di­vid­u­als who had taken an oath to pro­tect the rights of U.S. ci­ti­zens even though they them­selves did not have those rights.

The United States has a long his­tory of im­mi­grants serv­ing in the mil­i­tary, from the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War on. While mil­i­tary ser­vice has never been a guar­an­tee of cit­i­zen­ship, it has of­ten led to it. Im­mi­grants made up nearly one-fifth of Amer­ica’s armed forces dur­ing World War I. To­day an es­ti­mated 20,000 nonci­t­i­zen im­mi­grants serve in the U.S. mil­i­tary.

Many of the ser­vice mem­bers at the Los An­ge­les cer­e­mony ac­knowl­edged that the prom­ise of cit­i­zen­ship con­trib­uted to their de­ci­sion to en­list. (To join the mil­i­tary, an im­mi­grant must possess a per­ma­nent res­i­dent card, or “green card,” live in the United States and hold a high school diploma or GED.)

But there were other rea­sons as well. Ma­rine Cpl. Kevin Al­varez, a na­tive of Colom­bia, said that in­ter­na­tional events are what fi­nally mo­ti­vated him to sign up. “I started see­ing what was go­ing on with refugees. There were Syr­i­ans try­ing to get across a body of wa­ter to Greece and they ended up drown­ing. It re­ally res­onated with me, and I de­cided I wanted to be in the Ma­rine Corps. I wanted to help.”

Army Na­tional Guard Pfc. Je­sus Col­lazo, who was born in Mex­ico, said that his life­long goal was to be in the U.S. mil­i­tary and that po­ten­tial cit­i­zen­ship played no role in his de­ci­sion to vol­un­teer. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school, in Fon­tana, Cal­i­for­nia, where he’d lived since he was 5, he tried to en­list in the Army, but was told he couldn’t be­cause he was not a le­gal per­ma­nent res­i­dent. “That’s when I found out I wasn’t a U.S. cit­i­zen,” says Col­lazo. “It was a slap in the face. I didn’t know I wasn’t a cit­i­zen un­til I was 17.” He gained law­ful res­i­dency ten years later when he mar­ried a woman who is a U.S. cit­i­zen. He joined the Army three weeks later.

It wasn’t un­til decades af­ter serv­ing in the Marines dur­ing the Viet­nam War that Nick War­ren, who had em­i­grated from Greece as a boy, even con­sid­ered be­com­ing a cit­i­zen. “Cit­i­zen­ship never crossed my mind. My life was fine. What was the point?” But when War­ren, a truck driver, dis­cov­ered the fed­eral gov­ern­ment had im­posed stricter re­quire­ments in 2017 to

“THAT’S WHEN I FOUND OUT I wasn’t a U.S. cit­i­zen. IT WAS A SLAP IN THE FACE. I DIDN’T KNOW I WASN’T A CIT­I­ZEN UN­TIL I WAS 17.”

“IT BOTH­ERED ME THAT I SERVED MY COUN­TRY, BUT all the I DIDN’T HAVE rights OF CI­TI­ZENS,” OKORO AD­MIT­TED.

start “I FEEL LIKE I CAN my life again. IT’S BEEN RE­ALLY TOUGH. TO SAY IT’S BEEN STRESS­FUL WOULD BE AN UN­DER­STATE­MENT.”

main­tain his com­mer­cial Class A driver’s li­cense, he be­gan the cit­i­zen­ship ap­pli­ca­tion process. “I wanted to keep my job. That was my mo­ti­va­tion.”

As the thou­sands of peo­ple rep­re­sent­ing 128 coun­tries filed into the con­ven­tion cen­ter for the two cer­e­monies, the mil­i­tary mem­bers, most in uni­form, were es­corted to seats in the front row. Many were sur­prised by the pref­er­en­tial treat­ment. Ma­rine Cpl. Bong Cho, a na­tive of South Ko­rea, ap­pre­ci­ated the ges­ture but played down the event it­self: “I don’t re­ally con­sider this to be a big day. When I swore in as a Ma­rine, that was a big day. That changed my life for­ever.”

For Ifeanyichukwu Okoro, a spe­cial­ist in the Army Re­serve who grew up in Nige­ria, the day brought an over­whelm­ing sense of re­lief. He is part of a spe­cial pro­gram, Mil­i­tary Ac­ces­sions Vi­tal to the Na­tional In­ter­est (MAVNI), au­tho­rized in 2008 dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. The ini­tia­tive re­cruited im­mi­grants with valu­able for­eign lan­guage or med­i­cal skills by of­fer­ing ex­pe­dited cit­i­zen­ship in re­turn for mil­i­tary ser­vice. But the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in­tro­duced ad­di­tional re­quire­ments in late 2016, and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced in late 2017 that the pro­gram had been sus­pended. ( MAVNI par­tic­i­pants who filed for cit­i­zen­ship be­fore then re­mained el­i­gi­ble, but their sta­tus is of­ten un­clear. Some have been dis­charged.) Un­like other im­mi­grants serv­ing in the mil­i­tary, MAVNI re­cruits have no green card pre­req­ui­site; Okoro said the pro­gram’s dis­con­tin­u­a­tion left him “in limbo,” with no de­fined im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus to fall back on if his cit­i­zen­ship were de­nied. The un­cer­tainty lasted nearly a year be­fore his ap­pli­ca­tion was ap­proved. “I feel like I can start my life again. It’s been re­ally tough. To say it’s been stress­ful would be an un­der­state­ment. And it’s not just me. There are thou­sands of MAVNIs go­ing through this. Now my stress will be hav­ing to see them go through it, too.”

Chang­ing im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies also created dif­fi­cul­ties for Army Re­serve Pfc. Xiao Meng Sun dur­ing her two-and-a-half-year ap­pli­ca­tion process. When her fa­ther died in China in 2016, she didn’t at­tend his fu­neral there, be­cause she feared the new im­mi­gra­tion re­stric­tions would pro­hibit her from re-en­ter­ing the United States, re­gard­less of her mil­i­tary sta­tus. “I was dev­as­tated,” she said.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has at­tempted to im­pose ad­di­tional hur­dles for law­ful per­ma­nent res­i­dents (green card hold­ers) who want to serve in the mil­i­tary. Those ef­forts have thus far been blocked by the courts.

Once Fed­eral Judge Mar­tin Barash ad­min­is­tered the oath of al­le­giance and spoke about their new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and priv­i­leges, he sin­gled out each ser­vice mem­ber by name (the only new ci­ti­zens of­fered this recog­ni­tion), and the crowd re­sponded with stand­ing ova­tions.

For Okoro, this show of ap­pre­ci­a­tion was par­tic­u­larly heart­warm­ing, given the un­usual cir­cum­stances for im­mi­grants in the mil­i­tary. Un­til that mo­ment, he ad­mit­ted, “It both­ered me that I served my coun­try, but I didn’t have all the rights of ci­ti­zens.”

As the cer­e­mony con­cluded, the mil­i­tary mem­bers were asked to stand again, and Judge Barash came down from the stage and spoke with each one pri­vately while the thou­sands in the hall sat pa­tiently for al­most 15 min­utes. Now ci­ti­zens, the ser­vice mem­bers were the first to leave, march­ing out to more ap­plause. War­ren, who had in­sisted that he was be­com­ing a cit­i­zen only to keep his truck-driv­ing job, ap­peared quite emo­tional, purs­ing his lips and squint­ing as he stared for­ward in­tently. “I didn’t ex­pect to be moved like that,” he said, hold­ing his nat­u­ral­iza­tion cer­tifi­cate. “I couldn’t be­lieve the ap­plause we got. The whole thing, it was re­ally spe­cial.”

Af­ter WWI, as many as 300,000 im­mi­grant mil­i­tary mem­bers got cit­i­zen­ship. Fed­eral Judge Mar­tin Barash greets ser­vice mem­bers at the cer­e­mony. Army Re­servist Jiny­oung Kim moved from Ko­rea to Cal­i­for­nia with his mother and brother at age 15. He is a psy­chol­ogy ma­jor at UC Santa Cruz.

The Navy’s Vil­iame Koya­mai­bole (far left), de­ployed in Ok­i­nawa, em­i­grated from Fiji four years ago. Army Re­servist Taekeun Lim (left), who is ma­jor­ing in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing at Cal Poly Pomona, ar­rived from South Ko­rea seven years ago.

Air­man Kokou Mod­jro (be­low left) im­mi­grated to the U.S. from Togo two years ago and joined the Air Force a year ago. He is study­ing civil en­gi­neer­ing in the mil­i­tary. Army Spe­cial­ist Je­sus Ro­driguez (be­low right) moved from Mex­ico to Cal­i­for­nia at age 9.

Ma­rine Cpl. Kevin Al­varez (near right), de­ployed in Ja­pan, em­i­grated at age 6 from Colom­biawith his fam­ily, who now live in Boise, Idaho. Navy Re­servistXiao­jing Liu (far right), a res­i­dent of Tem­ple City, Cal­i­for­nia, is an ele­men­tary school art teacher who moved fromChina nine years ago.

Je­sus Col­lazo (above left), a pri­vate first class in the Army Na­tional Guard, set­tled in Fon­tana, Cal­i­for­nia, fromMex­ico, when he was 5. Ifeanyichukwu Okoro (above right), from Nige­ria, joined the Army Re­serves three years ago and is tak­ing pre-medcour­ses in Los An­ge­les.

Jorge Galvis served in the Army and now plans to en­list in the Na­tional Guard. Orig­i­nally from Colom­bia, he moved to New Jersey at age 6. Army Spe­cial­ist Yelsy Tor­res ar­rived from Hon­duras as a child. Af­ter grad­u­at­ingfrom Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sityin Vir­ginia, he is based at Fort Ir­win, Cal­i­for­nia.

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