Green Card Soldiers: Immigrants on Frontlines in Iraq

James Gooder Oct 15, 2003

Wherever the American military is, the star-spangled banner is never far away. But it is a foreign flag for more than 37,400 U.S. troops who owe no allegiance to the Stars and Stripes.

Thousands of these foreign fighters, whose native language is mainly Spanish, are now serving in Iraq. They are not prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice for their own country – but they are prepared to risk death for a green card, the famous permit that allows non-U.S. citizens to reside and work in America.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, about one in ten of the 332 soldiers killed fighting for America have been non-citizens. Given that green card soldiers make up just 2.5 percent of the U.S. total fighting force, a non-citizen is four times more likely to die on active service than a US-born citizen.

One of the first “U.S.” soldiers to be killed in the current Iraq war was Lance Corporal Jose Antonio Gutierrez, 28, an orphan from the streets of Guatemala City who slipped across the Mexican border illegally six years ago.

He lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was five, and his father died of drink by his side when he was eight. After giving up school, drifting from job to job, doing time in Guatemalan and Mexican jails – the latter for his second ill-fated attempt to enter the U.S. – he finally made it across the border.

Telling social workers in Los Angeles that he was just 16 – adults who sneak in to the U.S. are swiftly deported if caught – he won their sympathy and the right to stay. He went to school under cover of his assumed age, and eventually got the all-important green card.

This gave him the right to join the U.S. military. Despite being a peace-loving soul keen on writing poetry, the need for a sense of belonging and the lure of the cash incentives drew him into the Marines last year, just in time for the looming war in Iraq.

His dream of becoming an American citizen was only achieved with his death in a firefight near the Iraqi city of Umm Qasr. His death was a mistake. He ran out of a building that had been occupied by Marines and was shot by “friendly fire.”

He was buried, his coffin draped in the U.S. flag, unable to enjoy the privilege that had eluded him in life.

The citizenship conferred on Gutierrez and another slain non-citizen, Jose Garibay from Mexico, is “primarily symbolic” because it carries no benefits for their relatives, says Francisco Arcaute of the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Permanent residents are actively encouraged to sign up, lured by the promise of citizenship. Today, about 37,000 U.S. soldiers (or one in 40) does not have an American passport, but hopes to pick one up soon, courtesy of the commander-in-chief.

In a July 3, 2002 executive order, George W. Bush called for “expedited naturalization for aliens and non-citizen nationals serving in an active-duty status … during the period of the war against terrorists of global reach.”

Around a third of these soldiers come from Mexico and other Latin-American nations. They fight alongside others from China, Vietnam, Canada, South Korea, India and many other countries.

Reprinted from

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