American Enterprise Online
July 18, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

A week ago today, the Senate Armed Services Committee convened a field hearing in Miami to draw attention to a remarkable group of people: US troops who are not yet US citizens. These Americans-in-the-making are playing an active part in the war on terror overseas, and a more subtle role in the larger drama of immigration reform here at home. 

There are almost 37,000 non-citizens serving in this melting-pot military of ours, up from two years ago, when I last wrote on this subject. Not surprisingly, the bulk of these non-citizen servicemen come from Mexico, the Philippines, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.  

In 2002, President George W. Bush streamlined the naturalization process for immigrants serving in the US Armed Forces, offering expedited citizenship to those willing to serve a nation that is not yet their own. Since then, as the Department of Homeland Security’s Emilio Gonzalez explained to the committee, immigration officials have traveled all around the globe—to aircraft carriers on the high seas, to base camps on the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the no-man’s land dividing Korea—in order to naturalize this special breed of Americans.  

Among the many dividends of citizenship through military service, perhaps the biggest is the fact that those who become Americans in this manner know that they have truly earned their citizenship—and know what it means to be an American. According to Gonzalez, himself an immigrant and a veteran, non-citizen soldiers are “more easily integrated into our nation, foster a greater attachment to our national and political institutions and are transformed into committed and loyal Americans.” 

While on the subject of loyalty, there are those who raise concerns about the allegiance of this current crop of Americans-in-the-making. They would do well to recall that Timothy McVeigh was born in rural New York; Asan Akbar was a California kid, growing up in LA and attending college at UC-Davis; and Suleyman al Faris was born in the nation’s capital.  

We know McVeigh’s story well. After serving as an infantryman in the US Army, he later killed 168 innocent Americans in Oklahoma City. Akbar, a former member of the 101st Airborne whose given name was Mark Kools, killed two American soldiers and wounded 14 others in the early hours of the Iraq campaign. Faris, whose parents named him John Walker Lindh, fought against his birth country under the Taliban banner. In short, just as being born in America doesn’t ensure one’s allegiance, neither does being born somewhere else taint it. 

And despite what the critics might say, there’s nothing new about immigrants—even non-citizens—fighting for America. As one Pentagon official told the committee, 660,000 American troops/veterans became American citizens between 1862 and 2000. 

In fact, ethnic diversity has been a hallmark of the US military from the very beginning, as underscored by a study on the US Armed Forces published by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB). For instance, Congress authorized the creation of a German battalion in 1776. During the Civil War, fully 22 percent of the Union Army was foreign-born, including a unit of German riflemen detached to the New York militia and a brigade comprised of Irish immigrants from New York and Massachusetts.  

According to Gonzalez, more than two dozen of those who died defending the Alamo were not from Texas or the United States, but England, Scotland, Wales, Germany and Denmark. He added that 369 immigrant soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.  

“The foreign-born share of soldiers increased to about half in the decade following the Civil War,” according to the PRB study. By 1898, 25 percent of the US Army was born somewhere other than the United States. After the war with Spain, Congress created a Puerto Rican battalion.  

PRB researchers found that during World War I, “the commander of the 77th Infantry Division, manned by draftees from the New York area, claimed that 43 languages and dialects were used in his unit.” And during World War II, Washington created an all-Norwegian battalion “for an invasion of German-occupied Norway.” 

Spanish-speaking units drawn from the New Mexico National Guard were deployed to the Philippines ahead of World War II. They would be captured by Japanese troops and forced to endure the Bataan Death March, some of them paying the ultimate price for wearing an American uniform. 

Speaking of the ultimate price, at least 100 of 26,000 American troops who have become American citizens since 9/11 have died for our country—and their country.