Immigrants Have Long Served Their Country In the U.S. Military. Some Have Made the Ultimate Sacrifice

Immigrants Have Long Served Their Country In the U.S. Military. Some Have Made the Ultimate Sacrifice

By Gabe Ortiz | America’s Voice

Immigrants have a long and distinguished history of serving in the U.S. military. This Memorial Day, we also remember that some have made the ultimate sacrifice for their adoptive nation. According to one figure, 300 foreign-born soldiers died in combat between 2001 and 2013. One of these immigrant patriots, Marine Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez, 22, was one of the first U.S. service members to be killed in action during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was once undocumented, arriving in the U.S. alone when he was just 14.

“He had been born in Guatemala in 1974 but his parents died while he was very young during the country’s brutal civil war,” TIME reported in 2003. “His sister Engracia, just four years his senior, was his only remaining family and he lived on the streets of the capital, Guatemala City.” The boy lived in an orphanage through his early teens, when he set out for the U.S. on his own, hopping on more than a dozen freight trains during his journey north.

It’s a risky enough journey for an adult. Many have been maimed, and some killed, hitchhiking on these massive trains. One can only imagine what was racing through his young mind as he traveled alone. But he was persistent. “He promised Engracia that he would find a way to bring her up north to join him one day,” TIME continued. “Says Lillian Cardenas, who would become his foster sister in the United States: He had nothing, no money, just the will for a better life.”

Gutierrez won his residency at 18 and, after graduating from high school, began to pursue community college in hopes of one day becoming an architect. But he also never forgot his surviving family in Guatemala, regularly sending Engracia small amounts of cash. On the advice of a foster brother, Gutierrez decided to enlist in the military, possibly attracted by the fast-tracked path to citizenship offered to immigrant servicemembers. Following training at California’s Camp Pendleton, he was deployed to Kuwait.

“The last time he wrote to his foster mother he complained he couldn’t keep the sand out of his tent or food,” TIME reported. “Less than a month later he was dead,” becoming the second U.S. service member to be killed in action in the conflict. He was posthumously awarded U.S. citizenship by the federal government.

Immigrants from all over the world, like Gutierrez, have made the ultimate sacrifice. Specialist Francis Obaji, originally from Nigeria, enlisted in the U.S. military following September 11, New American Economy said in 2015. “Throughout his training and deployment in Iraq, Francis never lost his optimism, and he was unstoppable in his determination to defend his adopted country. Sadly, on January 16, 2005, Francis died in a vehicle accident in Iraq.” Sergeant Catalin Dima, originally from Romania, also enlisted in the U.S. military following the 2001 terror attack. He was killed in Iraq on the same day he was promoted to sergeant, New American Economy said.

“At a ceremony to dedicate a new Armed Forces Reserve Center – named the Sgt. Catalin Dima Center – to Sergeant Dima, both U.S. and Romanian officials remarked on Dima’s heroism,” the report said. “Furthermore, his widow Florika added, ‘As hard as his loss is for me and his children, I know he died doing what he loved. He was serving his country as a new citizen and wanted to be his best.’”

Immigrant service members like Jose Gutierrez, Francis Obaji, and Catalin Dima have fought in every major conflict since the nation’s founding. “Their share of overall military enlistment has fluctuated over time in response to recruitment needs and other factors, yet the foreign born have been a constant presence in the U.S. armed forces,” Migration Policy Institute said in a recent report. “As of 2022, nearly 731,000 U.S. veterans had been born outside the United States, representing 4.5 percent of the country’s 16.2 million veterans.”\

These immigrant service members have served with honor and distinction. Military Times reported in 2020 that “of the more than 3,400 Medals of Honor awarded since the Civil War, 22% have gone to immigrants.” In a 2006 Senate testimony, late U.S. senator and immigration champion Ted Kennedy noted that 150 bronze stars and two silver stars were awarded to immigrant service members from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “It’s an extraordinary record,” he commented. “Naturalized citizens are Americans by choice, and that choice is a great tribute to our country and its ideals.”

We should remember many wish to serve their country but are hindered by their immigration status. In Congress, lawmakers have, in recent years, proposed legislation that would allow so-called Military Dreamers to enlist. “Isn’t it amazing that those are not acknowledged as citizens here are the ones that are doing that hard work for the country,” Gustavo Castillo, Gutierrez’s parish priest, told CBS News in 2003. “Doing the fighting and risking their lives.” More than two decades later, it still rings just as true.

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