Marines: Looking for a Few Good Aliens?


This week, a general court martial is to begin at Parris Island, South Carolina, for a U.S. Marine recruiter accused of selling and delivering counterfeit documents to illegal aliens in order for them to join the service.

Gunnery Sergeant Hubert A. Lucas, 35, is one of four suspects named in a report by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, part of which was obtained by the Voice.

The report says an investigation began on August 11, 2004, after an intelligence report by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency revealed that a Marine at Camp Pendleton in California, who had admitted to entering the United States illegally and enlisting with a counterfeit green card and stolen Social Security number, identified Lucas as the individual who charged her $250 for the documents for the purpose of effecting her fraudulent enlistment in the Marine Corps.

During an interview, the Marine told immigration authorities that she bought the counterfeit documents from people in New York City who told her they’d be delivered to a specific hotel in Miami and to await further instructions. Those eventual instructions were to enlist at the Marine recruiting sub-station in Perrine in Miami-Dade County, Florida. According to the report, the recruit also said she “engaged in a consensual sexual relationship” with Lucas. (One of the charges against Lucas is that he housed one or more prospective recruits in his personal quarters.)

Her accusations prompted a review of recruiting activity at the Perrine sub-station. According to the report, investigators found 23 recruits who may have fraudulently entered the Marine Corps. Twenty suspect alien registration numbers, along with Social Security numbers for all 23 recruits, were queried through federal databases. It turned out that every single one was “either completely fraudulent or assigned to a different person.” The investigation later identified three more alien recruits suspected of fraudulently enlisting.

The charges against Lucas span from late 2001 to mid-2004, and include fraudulent enlistment, conspiracy to commit fraud, and dereliction of duty. Potential sanctions include dishonorable discharge, several years’ jail time and forfeiture of pay, according to a Marine Corps spokesman.

Captain John Schwab, defense counsel for Lucas, was unable to comment for this article.

Investigators seem prepared to say this was simply a money-making scheme. “The facts seem to indicate that this was only a for-profit fraud case and it is being investigated as such,”
said NCIS spokesman Ed Buice in an e-mail.

Lucas’s trial comes at time when the Army is having trouble meeting its recruiting goals, a shortfall generally attributed to the prolonged and bloody combat in Iraq. But unlike the Army, the Marine Corps reported that it has been exceeding its goals, enlisting 29,173 recruits between October 1, 2004, and August 31 of this year. At the Lucas sub-station, “productivity was about average,” said Master Sergeant Rhys Evans, a spokesperson for the Sixth Marine Corps District.

Legal permanent residents are allowed to serve in the armed forces, if they present a green card. It used to be that those cards, as with documents from native-born recruits, where vetted by the recruiter and a liaison from the local Military Entrance Processing Station, according to a Marine Corps spokesman.

But last year, after several cases surfaced of illegal aliens enlisting in the military using counterfeit documents, the Defense Department told the Military Entrance Processing Command to begin verifying alien registration and Social Security numbers with the appropriate federal authorities. This may mean that many illegal aliens who have enlisted since are case s of identify-theft.

There are currently about 37,500 foreign nationals from over 200 countries serving in the active duty forces and reserves . Seventy-one have died in Iraq and three in Afghanistan. The law currently provides for expediting the citizenship applications of U.S. service personnel, who become eligible to apply the first day they enlist. The presence of non-citizens in the U.S. armed forces dates back to the 18th century—“more than 660,000 military veterans became citizens through naturalization between 1862 and 2000,” according to a report by the nonprofit CNA Corporation.

Service by illegal immigrants is another matter entirely. The penalty for emerging from invisibility varies from case to case. Some have faced discharge and even deportation from the country they have sworn to defend.

Margaret Stock, an associate professor of law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, says she’s periodically consulted by attorneys representing illegal service members. “I do think there are probably a significant number of people in the military who had some issue with their immigration status at some point,” she said.

In a December 2003 article in Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, Stock wrote that the federal statute limiting enlistment to citizens and green card holders specifically states that this rule applies “in time of peace.” She cited section 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which holds that “[a]n alien or a noncitizen national of the United States” who “has served honorably” in the armed forces during a “period which the President by Executive order shall designate as a period in which Armed Forces of the United States are or were engaged in military operations involving armed conflict . . . may be naturalized . . . whether or not he has been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence…”

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.

“If the person is a good soldier, hasn’t done anything wrong in the military, is performing well,” said professor Stock, “I don’t see any reason in the world why you should discharge him when the statutes allow them to be in and allow them to become citizens. In fact, it undercuts our war-fighting effort to be discharging people like that.”