WASHINGTON — Dressed in US military uniforms, an Iraqi, a Mexican and a Colombian stand proudly at their naturalization ceremony, each clutching a miniature American flag in one hand and a copy of the constitution in the other.
“You are part of the most exclusive club in the world,” director of US citizenship and immigration services Emilio Gonzalez told them Tuesday at the ceremony, which included 25 new citizens — mostly soldiers — from 14 nations.
“You’ve accepted to defend the principles of the greatest country in the world,” said Gonzalez, who is himself a naturalized American.
Each year the United States naturalizes more than 700,000 immigrants. Once they join the armed forces, immigrants who usually have residency based on a green card, are able to fast track their citizenship because they are serving in a “time of war.”
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001 the option has been offered to all immigrants who have enlisted in the military. And since the start of the war in Iraq in March 2003, 32,500 immigrant soldiers have been naturalized.
This is “one of the happiest days in my life,” said Javier Tegada, 32, a native of Colombia who was outfitted in a white Marine’s uniform.
Tegada arrived in the United States four years ago but obtained his citizenship in six months. Normally one must have five years of residence in order to gain American citizenship.
“I hope that one day Iraq will be similar to America with the rights of freedom and religion,” said Sona Bani, a 21-year-old Iraqi who has lived in the United States since the age of 10.
“Eventually I’ll get deployed. I’m ready for that,” she said with a note of hesitation. “If they want me to go to Iraq, I’ll go,” said Bani.
For Bayando Andino, 20, a marine from Nicaragua who obtained his US nationality in less than four months, the process made him even fonder of his adopted country.
“You pretty much can do anything you have the ability to do. Nobody can stop you,” he said.
Fellow marine Gamanuel Jean, a 23-year-old from Haiti joined simply to “straighten out my life,” and had “no idea about the citizenship” but he chose to become a citizen so that he could serve at a higher rank.
“It’s an opportunity,” he said. “I want to become an officer in the military.” Soldiers do not have to be US citizens but officers do.
Despite the image often portrayed in the media, the US military is not overwhelmed by people who are minorities in the nation as a whole: 35 percent of the US army is classified as “minority,” versus 33 percent in the country.
“Historically, Hispanics have a relatively low rate of high school graduation,” said David Segal, sociology professor at American University.
“If you have a population that tends not to finish school they tend not to be represented in the military,” he said, adding that “at this point we are pretty close to a representative force.”
The US army has around 40,000 immigrants, and does not enlist those who do not have papers.
A debate is raging over whether the armed services should change standards in order to boost recruitment amid overstretched forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A recent bill on immigration failed to make it through Congress, but the notion of offering citizenship to enlistees who arrived in the United States before the age of 16 is often tossed about in political and military circles.
“People talk about it a lot, it’s pretty controversial as well,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Segal noted that the military has not explicitly used citizenship as a recruiting appeal, but thinks it would be a successful tactic. “If the army wanted to use it as a motivation for enlistment they could get far more than they are getting.”