CLEARWATER — This month's death of Army Spc. Arturo Huerta-Cruz in Iraq cast a spotlight on troops serving in the U.S. military who are not American citizens.
Huerta-Cruz, 23, was born in a small town in rural Mexico and moved to Clearwater with his family when he was 10. He was a legal permanent resident, or a "green card" soldier.
That made him an exception. Noncitizens account for about 5 percent of the troops in all the branches of the U.S. military. Noncitizens now must have green cards to enlist.
But as the nation fights wars on two fronts, some wonder whether the military should recruit more heavily among immigrants here — even undocumented ones — as well as foreigners in their own countries.
Yes, say some intellectuals at Washington, D.C., think tanks.
"Those of us who support recruiting foreigners believe they are often very skilled, motivated, and in the great American tradition of immigration," Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution senior fellow on foreign policy said in an e-mail.
The "Dream Act" bill that failed in Congress last year would have done more than legalize undocumented high school students who aspire to college. It also would have given green cards to undocumented high school students who served in the military.
Such students "are well educated, they are not troublemakers, they are bilingual," said Jorge Mariscal, a professor of Latino studies at the University of California, San Diego.
"The military wants to get their hands on those folks," added Mariscal, a Vietnam veteran.
The nonprofit CNA Corp. based in Virginia has recommended mining the legal immigrant community more heavily for military recruits.
"One overlooked source of military manpower is immigrants and their families," according to a 2005 report by CNA, which advises public employers on issues ranging from national security to international affairs.
"In fact," the organization concluded, "much of the growth in the recruitment-eligible population will come from immigration."
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Along with immigrant groups who have fought for the United States — Irish-Americans in the Civil War, for example — noncitizens also have enlisted since the Revolutionary War.
Green card soldiers have received widespread publicity during the Iraq war because some of the first casualties were Latin-American immigrants.
One was Lance Cpl. Jose Antonio Gutierrez, 22, from Southern California.
Gutierrez was an orphan in Guatemala. Fleeing poverty, he came to the United States illegally. In Southern California, he entered the foster care system and got a green card.
He joined the Marines.
He was killed on March 21, 2003, by enemy fire as American troops tried to secure Umm Qasr. A movie about him, The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez, was released last year.
After the war started, President Bush signed an executive order allowing immigrants in the military to apply for citizenship immediately. Congress followed with legislation that shortened the time that immigrants in the military have to wait during peacetime to apply for citizenship, from three years to one year.
As of February, there were 20,326 immigrants in active duty in all branches of the military. Another 13,151 were in the Reserves.
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It's a small slice of the military, but CNA recommends that the armed forces should target more legal immigrants as recruits.
The foreign-born population in the United States at the time of the CNA report — 12 percent — was at least twice as high as their representation in the military.
Also, a third of the world's population is younger than 15, and many of those young people will make their way to the United States, where some will become legal residents.
For the military, the linguistic and cultural diversity of noncitizens are especially valuable, the CNA authors said.
They add that many immigrants are interested in the expedited process for citizenship that enlisted immigrants receive.
Meanwhile, O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot have called for a "new chapter in the annals of American immigration."
Their proposal: give foreigners recruited from other countries as well as those already here citizenship after four years of military service. That, they believe, could create a path toward assimilation for undocumented immigrants without green cards. Besides, they note, the military already relaxed age and other restrictions, including those accepting enlistees with criminal records, to meet recruiting goals.
"The idea of offering citizenship to foreigners who first join the armed forces should be a winner for everyone," they wrote in the Washington Post in 2006. "It is good for immigrants. … It is good for a beleaguered American military that is simply too small for the tasks it has been handed."
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Not surprisingly, others oppose the idea of increasing the number of noncitizens fighting for American ideals.
The military would become a low-wage occupation like other industries now dominated by immigrants, warns Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors more restrictive immigration policies.
"If enlisting were a way to get legalized or a way to get into the United States," Krikorian said, "soldiering would become a job Americans would not do very rapidly."
Some in the Hispanic community, already weary of recruitment among its youths, agree.
Said Mariscal: "It would be another example of the exploitation of cheap labor."
Even now, American citizenship is not guaranteed for immigrant serving in the military, Mariscal said. Meanwhile, some countries strip their nationals of citizenship if they serve in foreign militaries.
"Those people who did it would have no country," Mariscal said.
In Clearwater, Huerta-Cruz — one of 144 immigrants who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 — was buried Tuesday.
Calvary Catholic Cemetery on U.S. 19 is his final resting place.
And one day, the United States could become his home country.
That's because Army officials have said they will seek posthumous citizenship for Huerta-Cruz.
Jose Cardenas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.