Honor our immigrant soldiers

A Times Editorial
Published March 3, 2008

The American military has relied on immigrants to fill its depleted ranks by promising expedited citizenship in return for service to the nation. While the policy has worked well - 8,000 resident immigrants enlist each year - it is being threatened by an avoidable glitch. Federal officials are having trouble fulfilling their end of the bargain.

Army Sgt. Kendell Frederick from Trinidad was killed while waiting to become a citizen. Three times his application was returned over technicalities, the final time because immigration officials said his fingerprints were unreadable. On duty in Iraq, Frederick set out to get another set of fingerprints when he was killed by a roadside bomb.

Now his citizenship will be granted posthumously. "If somebody is fighting for a country, if he's deployed, if he's in the middle of a war, it shouldn't be that hard for them to become a citizen," his mother, Michelle Murphy, told the New York Times.

One problem is the workload at Citizenship and Immigration Services, which saw a surge of applications after announcing a coming fee increase. Meanwhile CIS is being pushed to deport more illegal immigrants. Let supporters of tax cuts and smaller government try to justify that contradiction.

Then there is the lack of common sense in bureaucracies. Immigrant soldiers have to clear a background check that can get fouled up if their names are similar to someone on a terrorist watch list. Soldiers with Muslim-sounding names, such as Abdool Habibullah, often find their applications delayed. Yet these are people who have already been vetted by the military and proved their patriotism - in Habibullah's case an honorable discharge from the Marines after a tour of duty in Iraq.

It is in the nation's best interest that immigrants be promptly rewarded for their military service. If they are not encouraged to fill the ranks depleted by two wars, then a draft becomes more necessary. And as Undersecretary of Defense David S.C. Chu pointed out in congressional testimony, immigrant soldiers are not only necessary but also reliable: 80 percent of noncitizens fulfill their enlistment obligation while only 70 percent of citizens do so.

More than 100 immigrant soldiers have died in combat since Sept. 11, 2001. Grateful Americans and their government need to honor that sacrifice by keeping their promise.