Immigration hearing highlights military's role

In Miami, U.S. senators draw attention to the effect of proposals on about 24,000 noncitizens in uniform.

Published July 11, 2006

MIAMI - Gen. Peter Pace saw his men die as a young platoon leader in Vietnam and he commanded Marines during the ill-fated military intervention in Somalia. In 2005, he was the first Marine in U.S. history to be named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But on Monday, while sitting in a community college auditorium before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Pace's steely exterior dissolved when he described his upbringing as the American-born son of Italian immigrants. He told the panel of senior lawmakers that giving immigrants and their families the opportunity to serve in the military should be a top priority of the controversial immigration reform bills pending in Congress.

"My dad came here, sometimes worked three jobs, but the jobs were there for him and the opportunities were there for him," said Pace, pausing to swallow tears. "There is no other country on the planet that affords that opportunity to those who come."

Sens. John McCain, Edward Kennedy and John Warner were clearly moved. The 100 people in the audience applauded.

"General, you have made history, sir," said Warner, a Republican from Virginia.

Still, the emotion underscored the hearing's public relations goal: to convince the public that the Senate's immigration reform package is the best way to revamp the system. For several months, Congress has debated the most sweeping immigration legislation in two decades, but lawmakers remain divided on key issues, including what to do about the 12-million illegal immigrants already in the United States, including 500,000 in Florida.

The House passed a bill in December that focuses on increasing border security and other enforcement measures but offers no way for illegal immigrants to become citizens. In May, the Senate approved a more comprehensive bill that would provide a path to citizenship for those who entered illegally, expand guest worker programs and increase security.

Sen. Kennedy, D-Mass., said the House bill would be offensive to the members of the military who are immigrants by making felons of their family members. Under current law, illegal immigrants are deported and not charged with a crime on their first offense.

"It is an insult to their dedication to our defense," he said.

Instead of beginning negotiations on a compromise bill, the House and Senate scheduled a series of "field hearings" around the nation for July and August. Monday's meeting at Miami Dade College on the contributions of immigrants to the nation's armed forces was one such hearing.

The meetings - rare this late in the process - have delayed negotiations until at least the fall and cast doubt on whether Congress can strike a deal before November's elections. In recent weeks, though, some key lawmakers have showed a willingness to move closer to the other side, making a deal possible this year. Some Senate leaders, among them Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., have shown signs of moving toward the stricter House version.

How changes in immigration laws will affect members of the military have largely been overlooked during the months-long debate.

Noncitizens and recent immigrants have long fought for this country, many of them with distinction. About 24,000 noncitizens are serving in the armed forces. About 100 have been killed in action since 2001. Also since that date, about 24,000 service members have been naturalized. Experts at the hearing also said that immigrants add cultural and linguistic value to the military: More than 10,000 noncitizens scored well enough to use their foreign language during military operations.

On Monday, the five witnesses who testified before the Senate committee said that because the nation is relying on its military more, it is essential that lawmakers recognize the immigrants' contribution and offer them - and their families - citizenship, if possible.

"There's a myth out there that all you have to do to immigrate to America is to go stand in a line somewhere," said Margaret Stock, a professor of constitutional and military law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "There is no line. Comprehensive reform will give people a line to stand in."

She added that members of the military are often fighting on two fronts, one on the battlefield and one at home. To be a U.S. soldier, one can be born in another country but must be a legal resident. Occasionally, these legal residents are married or related to illegal immigrants, said Stock, and the soldier must organize legal help from afar. The process is expensive and confusing.

Stock said that other soldiers are told by immigration authorities that they can't sponsor their relatives to come to the United States because their salaries are too low.

Calling the current immigration laws "dysfunctional," Stock said that strict enforcement and the lack of a path to citizenship would hurt the military's ability to recruit and retain soldiers.

"Without reform, these problems cannot be resolved," she said.