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The Hardest Way to Become an American Citizen

June 30, 2005

It is the hardest way to become an American citizen: fighting for a country that is not yet yours, and in some cases dying for it.

Catalin Dima took this path, and his family has no regrets. Born in Romania, where he served in the military, Dima immigrated to America in 1996 and came to adore his new country. Living in Queens, N.Y., and later upstate, he married, fathered three children and worked as a big-rig truck driver.

After becoming a legal resident in 2001, he joined the Army Reserve in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. "I tried talking him out of the Army because I was afraid, but there was no talking him out of it," says his wife, Florika Dima. "He said he had to do it."

"He bought the whole package," says his uncle, Peter Danciu. "He loved this country."

While deployed in Iraq last October, Dima, 36, took the oath of allegiance administered by Eduardo Aguirre Jr., outgoing head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In a fit of joy, he shouted "USA, USA," as he left the ceremony. Six weeks later, the day he was promoted to sergeant, Dima died in a mortar attack near Baghdad.

Aguirre says, "The moral of the story for me is he died as he would have liked to have died: a U.S. citizen and an officer in the U.S. Army."

As the Fourth of July approaches and a nation at war struggles to fill its armed ranks with volunteers, the United States is doing what it has done in every major conflict since the Civil War: It is making it easier for legal resident aliens to become U.S. citizens if they choose to fight.

The result has been mixed in this war. The recruiting of legal residents hasn't changed. They make up 2% to 3% of the U.S. military, as they have for the past five years. But legal residents already in the military are becoming citizens in record numbers.

In fiscal 2004, 7,627 alien soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines took the oath of allegiance. That's nearly 15 times as many as the 518 who became citizens in 2000, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In the first three-quarters of the current fiscal year, 3,397 servicemembers have been naturalized.

President Bush issued an executive order in 2002 making it easier for foreign-born U.S. troops to naturalize. Congress further modified immigration laws late last year.

As a result, any legal resident who enlists in the military can immediately petition for citizenship rather than wait the five years required for civilians to start the process. Those in the military previously had to wait three years to become citizens. And $390 in petition and fingerprinting fees are waived for servicemembers.

Citizenship applications from servicemembers more than doubled in one year to almost 10,000 after Bush's executive order in 2002. In the first three quarters of the current fiscal year, the Immigration Service has received more than 11,000 naturalization petitions from soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen.

In naturalization ceremonies across the country that are geared to the upcoming holiday, several hundred military servicemembers are among the 15,000 people who will be sworn in as citizens.

Posthumous citizenship

In addition, there are cases in which U.S. citizenship has been granted posthumously to those killed in combat. According to the Defense Department and the immigration service, at least 73 non-citizens serving in the U.S. armed forces have died in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Historically, the nation has expedited citizenship during war both to reward those who serve and to recruit other non-citizens, says Marion Smith, an immigration service historian. "It is a demonstration of good citizenship, is it not, to put your life on the line?" she says. "And so it just seemed in most people's minds that Congress should do something for these alien soldiers. This is also when the recruitment needs are higher, and so maybe you need to add a little more incentive."

Beyond the rights that citizenship confers, such as voting, there are practical career benefits for servicemembers. Non-citizens are barred from re-enlisting in the Air Force after four years, and after eight years in the Army. In most cases, commissioned officers must be citizens. And security clearances, necessary for many military job classifications, can be granted only to citizens.

"I need to be a citizen if I'm going to serve my country, especially if I'm planning to make a career out of the Army," says Pfc. Areli Marisa Lopez, 19, a native of Mexico. She took the oath of allegiance in a ceremony Wednesday in El Paso.

Non-citizens in uniform often speak with a rough-hewn eloquence of how citizenship is a fitting consequence of their service.

"I choose the citizenship because I believe what the Americans believe, their value system, their freedoms," says Army chaplain Jin Hee Chang, 41, a native of South Korea who came to the USA 12 years ago. He was naturalized June 23 in Syracuse, N.Y. "Now I feel like they are my people."

Birgit Smith, a native of Germany, felt an overwhelming sense of inclusion from Americans long before she took the oath of allegiance in May. A civilian, she is the widow of Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith, who died April 4, 2003, while single-handedly fighting off a counterattack by dozens of Iraqi troops during the invasion. He saved an equal number of American troops through his actions. He was the first servicemember to receive the highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, in more than a decade.

On the Ford Explorer that Birgit Smith drove on shopping trips in Holiday, Fla., she had a decal with gold lettering that read: "In loving memory of Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith." People recognizing the name would honk horns, salute or wave to her. Others would motion for Birgit to pull over so they could give her a tearful hug, or would leave notes of appreciation on her windshield in parking lots.

She was overwhelmed by the response. "After Paul's death, I definitely wanted to become an American," she says. "I saw more how the American people are, how grateful they are, how they care."

Although Birgit Smith's citizenship process was already underway before her husband died, one of the immigration changes instituted by Congress for servicemembers is designed to benefit their families. If a servicemember who is a U.S. citizen dies in the line of duty, foreign-born members of his or her family can now seek citizenship, even if they are not legal residents. This is also possible in cases in which the servicemember is made a citizen posthumously.

The naturalization process is still cumbersome. Fingerprints and photographs must be taken, and eligibility and background investigations completed. Applicants are interviewed and given a civics test.

However, military petitioners are moved to the front of the citizenship line. A process that takes a year for average aliens is reduced for non-citizen servicemembers, with the goal of having citizenship applications processed within 90 days, says Christopher Bentley, spokesman for the immigration service.

The naturalization process is "much easier and it's free," says Agnieszka Grzelczyk, 24, a Navy petty officer 3rd class who was born in Poland and naturalized at the Los Angeles Convention Center last Thursday with more than 8,400 people. She filed for citizenship in February, responding to the expedited immigration changes.

Last year's changes allow soldiers to be naturalized in war zones. But the war sometimes gets in the way. The immigration service has sent officials to administer the oath in Iraq and Afghanistan only once, and that was Aguirre's trip in October. Commonly, applicants serving in Iraq must wait until they are home.

A commitment

Army Spc. Uday Singh, a native of India who was eager to become a U.S. citizen, wrote from Iraq last November to a favorite aunt living in Lake Forest, Ill.: "I got some more good news. My citizenship process has finally gone through."

Singh, 21, had hoped to complete the process by January. But on Dec.1, he was killed in action when his platoon was ambushed along a highway near Habbaniyah.

Singh was posthumously awarded citizenship. His remains were transported to India for a Sikh funeral service and cremation. The ashes are interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

"He was committed to bettering himself," says his aunt, Harpreet Datt. "He felt that being on his own, with some distance from his parents (in India), would allow him to reach his potential. And citizenship was very much a part of that potential. It allows you to be what you can be."

A Defense Department survey of recruits last year found that non-citizens enlist for many of the same reasons as the native-born: to serve the country, to earn money for education or to learn new skills.

Army 1st Sgt. Olympio Magofna is a recruiter based in Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. He says the offer of expedited U.S. citizenship is "icing on the cake" when Filipinos, Japanese, Australians and Koreans who are legal residents of Guam choose to enlist. "We use that as a selling tool," Magofna says. "They can join the Army and get all the benefits. And then on top of that, if they're looking forward to becoming a U.S. citizen, it will be expedited and acted on quickly. That is an additional incentive."

Aguirre, a naturalized citizen and native of Cuba who is leaving the immigration service to become ambassador to Spain, says the individual choice to become a U.S. citizen is difficult to categorize.

"Citizenship is such a private, personal decision. I truly believe that everybody has a slightly different rationale for doing it. I equate it to getting married," Aguirre says. "It's a matter of the moment when you are ready."

He remembers administering the oath to a Marine gunnery sergeant who had been eligible for citizenship for more than a decade. "I said, 'Whatever motivated you to that right now?'" Aguirre recalls. "He said, 'I'm ready now.'"

A wartime decision

In a number of cases, soldiers who are just now taking their citizenship oaths are veterans of combat who face a return to the battlefield. This second round of risk somehow galvanized their decision to finally naturalize.

"I decided before I deploy again, I'd like to do it," says Army Sgt. Paul Falzarano, 25, a London-born member of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, based at Fort Drum in New York. After seven years as a legal resident here, Falzarano became a U.S. citizen June 23. His unit is set to go into Iraq in the next few months.

Falzarano says that despite his English accent, his squad mates have long since embraced him as one of their own. They even show admiration that a foreign national would serve next to them in combat while the Army is struggling to fill its ranks with U.S. citizens.

"I do more American-patriotic things than most Americans do, by serving," Falzarano says. "That's been noticed by a lot of people I work with. Swearing in as a citizen is pretty much a formality."

Army Spc. Nigel Gamble, 28, left the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago for the USA more than 10 years ago. Today, he is a soldier with the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum. He became a U.S. citizen June 14. Gamble said he chose to naturalize after a tour in Afghanistan. His unit is also preparing to deploy to Iraq.

"You're putting yourself on the line for 11 months every day and then you come back," Gamble says. "It's like, 'All right, I'm getting ready to do this (combat tour) again, let me go ahead and be a part of this and do it fully.'"

Copyright 2005 USA TODAY.

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