Daniel went down to the Army recruitment office, inspired to serve his country by the war in Afghanistan. Recruiters rejected Daniel, a citizen of Mexico, just as they have dozens of other undocumented young men and women who have tried to join the U.S. armed forces since September 11, hoping to help end terrorism.
Federal law makes it clear that only U.S. citizens and legal residents may sign up, says Sergeant First Class Chong Byun, the recruiting station commander for Los Angeles’ central area, where Latinos make up 95 percent of the enlisted. “I cannot help them,” Byun said. “But I do feel good that people here want to give their part . . . that makes me feel good too.”
Daniel, who asked that his last name not be used, is 23 years old and works as a telemarketer. He said he wants to make the world a better place for all people, including Afghan women. Daniel admits that not all undocumented immigrants have such lofty goals and might hope that joining the military would be a way to become a U.S. citizen. “I know that in the past we [undocumented immigrants] have been a little unappreciated, but this crisis demands that we sacrifice ourselves for making a better world,” he said.
Patriotism has resonated in the local Spanish-language media, where dozens of mothers call radio talk-show hosts to tell them how proud they are to have their sons and daughters join the military. Jaime Piña, a radio host of Recuerdo FM 103.9, a top-rated Spanish-language oldie station, said that most callers support military strikes.
“Many people call and say that if they are really not in favor of this country, what are they doing here?” Piña said. “I sincerely agree. Don’t you think? If we live here and enjoy it, and we have bettered ourselves in many ways, the least we can do is to be grateful.”
Undocumented residents have not always been banned from the military. Rudy Escalante, a Vietnam veteran who now heads Santa Ana’s G.I. Forum, a Latino veteran association, recalls Vietnam War veteran Alfred Rascon. Mexican-born Rascon joined the army and fought in Vietnam in 1966, where his platoon was attacked and nearly wiped out during a spying mission. While under a volley of bullets and exploding grenades, Rascon used his body as a human shield to cover several wounded comrades from imminent death. Thirty-four years later and after much lobbying from his rescued Army buddies, Rascon received the Congressional Medal of Honor from then-President Clinton. He was one of 39 Latinos to be awarded such a prestigious medal.
“Thank you for reminding us that being an American has nothing to do with place of birth, racial, ethnic origin or religious faith,” Clinton told Rascon. “It comes straight from the heart. And your heart, sir, is an extraordinary gift to your country.”
History proves that Latino immigrants have been willing to join the military during wartime, said Gonzalo Molina, a World War II veteran. As a 19-year-old student from Mexico who was living in New York, Molina was one of many legal residents who received presidential letters in mid-1944 inviting them to join the Army. Molina spent Christmas, and the next three years, in Germany as an enlisted soldier. He later became a U.S. citizen.
“During World War II there were many Latinos like me who were drafted without being citizens yet,” said Molina. “We felt that it was our duty to help our adopted country in a time of need.”
Despite all the patriotism, some Latino groups have rallied against American strikes in Afghanistan. Gang-member-turned-writer Luis J. Rodriguez, the author of Always Running, says the strikes are more about blind vengeance than reasonable leadership. Rodriguez has been touring the country giving peace talks. “To a certain extent, this is what happens between gangs in neighborhoods. It’s the mentality of ‘You get me, and I get you,’ and it never ends,” Rodriguez said. “I love my country. But you shouldn’t love your country so much that you should hate the rest of the world.”