Marines: Looking for a Few Good Aliens?

Recruiter on trial for selling IDs to enlist illegals

While the policy may not be clear on how to treat illegal service members, it is clear that they are serving.

Lance Corporal José A. Gutierrez, 28, who entered the United States illegally and got a green card on false pretenses, became only the second U.S. serviceman to die in combat when he fell victim to “friendly fire” in the port city of Um Qasr on the first full day of fighting.

Liliana Plata, 25, also from Mexico, assumed the identify of another woman in order to join the Air Force in 1999. Before her true identity was revealed, leading to her discharge in 2003, she was deployed four times in as many years to locations around the world, ultimately guarding Tallil Airbase in Iraq, earning lavish praise from her commanders and, she says, winning 10 medals and promotion to Senior Airman.

It is impossible to know how many other U.S. servicemen and women are guarding secrets like this. The military has recognized the immigrant population as a valuable resource in meeting its recruiting goals. “[M]uch of the growth in the recruitment-eligible population will come from immigration,” according to the CNA Corporation’s report, which also says that noncitizens typically perform very well in the military.

While it’s Army policy to enlist only citizens and legal residents, the service gets more flexible during wartime. “In any particular case, separation for an erroneous or fraudulent enlistment may be appropriate,” Lieutenant Colonel Pamela Hart, of the public affairs office, wrote in an e-mail. “In other cases, a commander may determine that a soldier has served so meritoriously that he or she may recommend an exception.”

This contrasts sharply with statements by Army spokesman Joe Burlas, who told reporters in September 2003 that "if there are any illegal aliens in the Army, they have fraudulently enlisted. When they're caught, they are discharged from the Army."

Jack Richbourg, an immigration attorney in Memphis, says he is currently representing two African men who were not legally admitted to the U.S. and who were recently discharged from the Army. “These people were recruited. They went in and were recruited by someone,” said Richbourg. “But by hook or by crook they get into the service, and I say that that’s enough.”

Or maybe not. “Almost every day we saw people come in with that predicament,” said Los Angeles immigration attorney Carl Shusterman. From 1976 to 1982, Shusterman was an attorney and then a prosecutor at the L.A. office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, where he says “hundreds” of Vietnam veterans who were illegal aliens became U.S. citizens by virtue of their military service.

Shusterman says their numbers began to dwindle once President Carter ordered an end to section 329 benefits in September 1978. Since then he says that in private practice he has represented “maybe half a dozen” service members who were not legal permanent U.S. residents. Among those was the celebrated case of Danny Lightfoot, a fraudulently enlisted Marine from the Bahamas who was ultimately permitted to remain in the Corps and for whom Shusterman succeeded in obtaining U.S. citizenship in 1994.

“My heart was pounding 1,000 beats per second the whole time I was in the recruiting office,” Liliana Plata wrote in an e-mail. “Because this was me going straight to the wolf's mouth.” Plata, originally from Mexico City, says she bought a U.S. birth certificate from a man in Los Angeles who told her the person it named had died as a child.

She first came into contact with military recruiters at her high school. “I loved the whole idea of the military,” she wrote. “The integrity, the respect, the good feeling you get from giving something back without expecting something in return.” But when she first heard that she needed a birth certificate, her heart sank. “Right then I knew I will never be able to join. I was stuck with a low-paying job doing God knows what because I'm an illegal.”

But she was able to buy the documents she needed from someone in Los Angeles. She enlisted and began what promised to be a highly successful career. One of her commanders called her an “outstanding leader” with “unlimited potential.” Soon enough, however, the original holder of her birth certificate turned out not only to be alive but to have discovered that one of the people who also bought her identity from the same Los Angeles broker had since run up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt.

Identity-theft charges against Plata were dropped in July once it was clear she wasn’t behind the unauthorized spending. “[M]y whole chain of command in my squadron was doing everything they could to keep me in,” wrote Plata. “They gave me a General Discharge under Honorable Conditions.”

Unlike the Navy or the Marine Corps, the Air Force and Army restrict the time of service for noncitizens to four and eight years, respectively. Citizenship is required to obtain security clearances, to become a commissioned or warrant officer, and to join certain special programs like the Navy SEALs.

"If you claim to be a U.S. citizen when you sign your enlistment papers, your citizenship as an American is material to the enlistment," said Professor Stock, explaining that those who lie merely about their immigration status, rather than their nationality, have the best chance of maintaining their position in the military.

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