The Romney campaign’s recent stunt in Ohio has a lot of people up in arms about military servicepersons right to vote. After all, the women and men who raise their right hand and take an oath to protect our nation and values understand more than anyone the sacrifice required to keep Americans feeling safe. There’s no question as to whether or not military members should be afforded every possible opportunity to vote for their political representatives, and for the most part, every effort is made to help the women and men in uniform to cast their ballots no matter where their duties take them.
Unless you’re an immigrant.
While it’s perfectly legal for you to serve in the military as a legal resident of the United States – in fact, if you’re a legal permanent resident between 18-25 years old you’re required to register for the Selective Service – you are not legally eligible to participate in state or federal elections. In order to vote, an immigrant first must go through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service and begin the process to become a permanent resident, which requires you to be in the U.S. for at least a year before applying. Then, after three years of permanent residency, you can apply to become a naturalized citizen. Each step of the way you will be required to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars in fees, submit documentation, wait, subject yourself to biometrics tracking, then wait some more.
Military service is a welcoming call to those who feel an obligation to give back to a country that welcomes them with open (albeit sluggish) arms, and thousands of immigrants each year raise their right hands and swear to defend a nation that doesn’t allow them to vote.
Immigrants Protecting Citizens
The majority of immigrants serving in the military come from the Philippines and Mexico, with around 11% of military servicepersons being of Hispanic origin. In 2008, the Department of Defense reported a total of about 65,000 non-citizens and naturalized citizens on the defense payroll, which makes up about 5% of military servicepersons. While the number of ineligible voters serving makes up only a small chunk of the $903 billion industry, it didn’t always used to be that way.
OneAmerica, a justice and democracy organization focusing on immigrant communities, explains:
“Non-citizens have fought in the U.S. Armed forces since the Revolutionary War. Foreign born residents comprised half of all U.S. military recruits during the 1840s and 20 percent of the 1.5 million service members in the Union Army during the Civil War.”
The small number of immigrants in the armed forces has not limited their ability to make an impact, either. In a 2006 Senate hearing on the contributions of immigrants to the Armed Forces, the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David Chu said that immigrants completed their service obligations more often than regular citizens:
“… noncitizens are a vital part of our country’s military. Those who serve are patriotic, with over 80 percent completing their initial enlistment obligation, compared with 70 percent for citizens. Noncitizen recruits continue to provide the Services with a richly diverse force in terms of race/ethnicity, language, and culture.” (page 20)
Each year about 8,000 immigrants enlist in the armed forces, and for General Peter Pace, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time (himself the son of an Italian immigrant), immigrants play an important role in our nation’s military:
“We have had thousands of servicemembers—since September 11, some 26,000-plus—who have served in our Armed Forces and have become citizens… Just 14,000 in the last 2 years [2004-2006] have become citizens through service to their country. Each year, over 8,000 non-U.S. citizens join our Armed Forces, and they bring with them an incredible diversity; intellectual diversity, cultural diversity, and an enormous amount of courage.
…just shy of 200 awards, significant awards, have gone to non-U.S. citizens in this current war. As was also mentioned, General Shalikashvili left Poland at age 16, came to the United States and became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Powell, who is the son of Jamaican immigrants; and now General Pace, son of an Italian immigrant.” (page 21)
The immigrants who serve in the armed forces are more likely to stay in longer than their citizen counterparts, but not everyone wants to stay in until retirement. For those who do decide to get out, law enforcement and government agencies put these veterans who happen to be immigrants right back under the scrutiny they were under before. If they commit a crime – however small it may be – they immediately face the possibility of deportation where for anyone else a fine would suffice. But even if they keep their noses clean and wear their veteran status proud on their sleeve, all is still not well for the men and women went from holding the highest social status in this country to one of the lowest.
A Legal Resident and Veteran
When I was stationed in California I worked with a man who had immigrated from Mexico and joined the Marine Corps in December of 2000. After eight years, Allan Alcibar left the Marines and is now a self-employed entrepreneur living in Los Angeles, CA. I recently had a chance to sit down with Allan and talk about immigration, the military, politics, and voting, from his perspective as a legal resident and veteran of our armed forces.
Allan is a legal resident, which means he can live here and has to pay taxes but he cannot vote in any election. This hasn’t stopped his observations of the world around him, and his unique perspective as an immigrant with eight years of service sheds an unfortunately familiar light on the way we operate as a country. Thought not native to the U.S., Allan has experienced aspects of the American Dream that very few native citizens are willing to stand up and endure, all while never being recognized as a “real” American.
The following is a transcript of our interview.
JESSE: You’re a legal resident right now and, according to the law, not a citizen of this country. Have you considered naturalization?
ALLAN: Yes, I have thought about becoming a citizen. That was the entire point behind working with an immigration lawyer and really what motivated me to join the Marine Corps. Back in 2000 I figured I had about 8-18 years to wait, and thought that a military enlistment would help my chances of citizenship whenever I applied. It wasn’t until after 9/11 that Congress took an active interest in immigrants fighting in the war.
Eventually, President Bush made it easier for members of the military and veterans to become citizens by speeding up the naturalization process. You still have to apply and pay the application fees but the entire process is sped up to about 6 months versus multiple years or even decades. The Marine Corps did not encourage me in any way shape or form. Help is available on the application process and you can take a class about what forms to fill out provided by the base legal unit, but this class is nothing more than telling you about the speedy process for military, and assistance filling out the basic application. I went to one but hesitated in submitting my application for two reasons.
First, as part of the application, an FBI background check is required. As part of the background check, your financial credit report is scrutinized. I had credit issues at the time and wanted to wait to fix my credit score before applying. I’m not sure if my bad credit would have hurt my chances of being accepted but I didn’t want to risk it.
The 2nd reason I didn’t submit my application was the fact that the people at legal were lost and non of them were immigration lawyers. Most importantly, they could not answer my questions about retaining dual citizenship. Whenever I asked them anything, I could literally see them making up the answer or only giving me their best educated guess. I told them I wanted to retain my Mexican citizenship status so I can travel back and forth with ease and in case I choose to move back to Mexico when I retire as an old man. No one – and I mean no one – could affirm that it was even possible (which it is, as I found out much later) and could not answer questions on how applying under my military status would affect the dual citizenship standing. Now that I am out, base legal will not help in the process because it is only available for active duty members.
I have since learned that Mexico does not automatically remove your citizenship unless you specifically renounce it. But, to compound my problems, now I am stuck dealing with a very severe case of identity theft. My bank accounts have been compromised twice now and multiple lines of credit were opened under my name throughout the globe. My credit score has gone from 675 to about 280 and it will take me a long time to fix it. Getting a well-paying job as a legal resident may be my legal right but that doesn’t mean employers want to hire me, and until I can make enough money to catch up on my own bills and fix this identity theft situation, I can’t afford to pay the fees to become naturalized.
I still haven’t found solid answers as to how important my credit score is during the application process and can’t risk paying for it if there’s a high possibility it might be rejected. I am in a very low point financially in my life as my business is suffering under economic pressures and I am stressing over paying my regular bills and rent (let alone the several hundreds of dollars that it costs to submit the application).
These are really simply my own personal concerns mixed in with a bit of procrastination on my part. I suppose I could have “pulled myself up by my bootstraps” and worked some minimum wage job with no benefits or future, but I wanted to be self-employed and grow my own business. You know, the American Dream and all. Since I’m still fixing my credit score and I can’t get a solid answer about whether my application would be denied because of it, it has been and still is a higher priority for me to preserve my capital for my business and personal expenses than to become naturalized.
JESSE: Has not being a citizen affected you at all?
ALLAN: The only real difference between legal residency and citizenship is that you can vote and I can’t. I have always been concerned with politics but never really cared about voting until after I was out of the military. Now I find myself in a situation where I simply can’t afford to vote. On top of that, even when I do submit the application, there’s no guarantee I will be naturalized anytime soon. I have some family members that have gained citizenship the regular way (I am the only service member in the family), some that have been waiting over 18 years just to get their legal permanent resident status, and a few others that are legal residents and still waiting for citizenship.
JESSE: Do you know anyone who has been affected by our obsession with border security, and if so, can you tell us what happened?
ALLAN: There are a couple of instances that come to mind. The most recent was on a short trip I took to Mexico with my cousins, both of whom are citizens (one born here and the other naturalized). Some recent legislation requires that Americans show their passport to re-enter the US at the border, but they still accept only a state ID. I was able to rapidly cross the border with only my state ID and my Permanent Resident card, but because my cousins only had their driver licenses and not their passports, they were told to go into a much longer line (in a very rude manner, but I’ll talk about the racism later) by the border officer. Apparently they have a special line for citizens with no passport and only a state ID to show proof of citizenship. The lack of professional behavior by the US border officer aside, this was only an inconvenience. My cousins where able to cross the border just fine, but this is an example of the broken rules and the inefficient way the system operates.
Every large country has a problem with illegal immigration. There should be strong rules and a proper sized force to regulate the border, but the trend of making immigrants a scapegoat for the nations problems needs to stop. It is biased and founded on propaganda and deep-seeded racism in some people. An example of this is the ridiculous notion that immigrants come here to freeload on the system while not paying taxes, or the far fetched theory of the “anchor baby.”
JESSE: You joined the Marines at a young age. Did your view of this country change from the time you joined to the time you got out? If so, how?
ALLAN: I feel that my personality and view of the world has changed very little. However, the majority of military members are conservative and I got a much closer look at the rightwing voter base in this country. I also got hands-on experience with the handicap of bureaucratic red tape and the ineffectiveness of government structure, wasteful spending, and the misuse of resources.
Take my last duty station for example. I was put in charge of buying the supplies needed for building training sites and general administration. The shopping was done with a well-regulated debit card system, but the card was only good on the one base supply store that monopolized the “approved” marketplace for supplies. I could only go to a hardware store outside the base and get competitive consumer prices if it was a specialty item that the base store could not supply or special order. So for standard, everyday things like staples, printer ink, pens and paper, and things you could buy in bulk from a hardware store, like wooden posts, plastic signs, and tape, I had to fork over ridiculous amounts of taxpayer dollars. I remember paying $15 for a single role of colored duct tape once, when I could have taken a 10 minute drive to Lowes and paid $5-7 with tax for the same item! With all the talk about tightening our borders and illegal immigrants ruining our economy, the need for budget reform and accountability of how monies are spent should be a higher priority than keeping Mexicans out of the country because racist white people don’t want to see successful minorities.
JESSE: You said it was recently that voting became a high priority in your life. How do elections affect you personally, being a legal resident and not able to vote?
ALLAN: Not being a citizen and living in the US is like a child with a full-time job paying rent and part of the bills to live in his parents house but still has no say in what food they eat, what channels they watch on T.V., or what time he can stay out to play with his friends. As a legal resident, I work and pay taxes – I even joined the military fought overseas! – but I have no say in the laws that govern me and have no voice and no power when it comes to electing the people who represent me in government.
At the federal level I’m on the fence. On the one hand, I feel it is fair that I cannot vote for the president. On the other hand, however, since I live here and I’m expected to obey the law and pay my taxes just like everyone else, I feel it is unfair that I don’t have a say in federal laws that are not constitutional amendments. When it comes to state and local elections, though, I should have complete suffrage. After all, I am a resident of my state, and residency in a state is all that is required to participate in a state election. There is no such thing as a citizen of California or a New York Citizen. We’re residents if we live there and there’s no reason I can’t participate.
JESSE: You can’t vote yet, but you still have your 1st Amendment rights. A town hall meeting is being assembled because a presidential candidate is going to be asking questions about local concerns for you and your family. What issues would you bring up to his or her attention?
ALLAN: If it was Obama I would ask why he campaigned under the promise of research and development of green energy sources, then once elected noted these as “clean coal” and nuclear (not exactly the “green” energy that comes to mind). I would also ask why when he eventually invested in solar energy was the effort so small and allowed to derail simply because of one failure and the GOP’s push to exploit and exaggerate the incident.
I would ask when we he intends to pull out of Afghanistan.
I would ask any candidate to consider expanding healthcare for all veterans, with completely free coverage for purple heart and combat action veterans.
I would call for an expansion of the collection period for the new GI Bill because the current system only provides for an Associate Degree or runs out halfway toward a Bachelors.
If it was Obama or another Democrat I would ask if he/she will be an actual leader to the democratic party that will stop bowing down and compromising with the current GOP.
But if I was only afforded one question or comment, I would say this: We need to introduce legislation similar to, but stronger than, the Glass-Steagall Act. Banks need to be regulated and broken up, loopholes in the tax code closed, subsidies for large corporations greatly reduced, and Justices nominated should be true to the intent of our Constitution and against corporations being people.
Should immigrants vote if they served?
He may not be considered a citizen – and some people may refuse to call him American because of who he is and where he came from – but if an American’s patriotism is judged by his or her propensity for hard work and self sacrifice, well, Allan is as American as they come. Unfortunately for him and other minorities, this country’s current leadership takes no interest in speeding up the decades-long wait period for immigration (is it because minorities generally vote Democrat?) and has targeted the ability to vote for those immigrants who are now legal citizens.
Some organizations have grown out of a needed response to a climate of disenfranchisement for minority people. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was one of them, but filed for Chapter 7 in 2009 after a wave of public and private funding cancellation after conservative activists falsified activities in a video that went viral. Although there was poor management at the lower levels, the agency was a large resource for low-income minorities, boasting around 500,000 members nationwide at the time it dissolved. Nevertheless, a rigorous campaign of modern day scarlet lettering forced ACORN to continually focus on trying to defend itself, eventually leading to its demise.
What ACORNS story says about similar organizations is clear: support too many possible voters of the wrong side and conservative extremists have the motivation and the wherewithal to destroy your ability to make a difference. Whether these intentions are grounded in deep-seeded racial resentment in a party overwhelmingly composed of wealthy white people has always been a cause for pondering.
For the men and women who immigrated to the United States and served our country, citizenship status should not bar them from voting in an election. If we are willing to send someone to fight and die for causes that we may or may not agree with, we ought to afford them the opportunity to have a say in who runs this country if they make it back alive. If we’re not going to fix our broken immigration system, if we’re not going to provide better resources for minorities to be in a position to become citizens, if we’re not going to take an active interest in the diversity of our future that our historical “melting pot” roots were founded on, then the least we can do is let the men and women who were more brave than we are participate in state and federal elections.
Do you know anyone who is affected by U.S. immigration policy?