Outlook: Short on Soldiers? Not if They'd Take Non-Citizens

Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Metro Reporter
Monday, June 4, 2007; 10:00 AM

Jonathan, a bilingual computer buff graduating this spring from an Alexandria high school, wanted to check out the Navy. The Navy wanted Jonathan -- and a Social Security Number. Now the Navy has one fewer bright recruits -- and the military instead is turning to applicants with lower aptitude scores, medical problems or a history of petty crimes.

Washington Post metro reporter Brigid Schulte was online Monday, June 4 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss her Sunday Outlook article on the skilled volunteers the military doesn't want.

Non-Citizen Soldiers: Why Won't We Let Them Fill the Ranks? (Post, June 3)

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Brigid Schulte: Good morning everyone, thanks for joining me this morning to talk about the ideas raised in the Outlook piece I wrote on military recruiting and immigration. Judging by the e-mails I already have received, people have a lot of strong opinions on the subject. Let's begin!


Philadelphia: Many of these immigrants do not have the means to legally stay in the U.S. Certainly many would relish the opportunity to stay in the U.S. legally. Do you see a moral dilemma in exploiting young immigrants' desire to gain citizenship by encouraging their inclusion in the army?

Brigid Schulte: You raise a really important question -- the idea of holding out the carrot of a green card and citizenship for doing the nation's most difficult work, and potentially dying as a result. A few points. First, historically that carrot always had been there until fairly recently. Second, these undocumented youths already are required to register for the draft. Third, no one is being forced to go -- there are a number of youths who want to go. That's an important distinction.


Bethesda, Md.: Why should a wealthy nation of 300 million or so citizens and legal residents need to depend its national defense on bribing its illegal residents with offers of citizenship? If such a nation cannot or will not recruit a defense force of 1 percent of its male citizens, its problems are much more serious than your article indicates.

Brigid Schulte: Good point. The bigger issue underlying the argument is, of course, the war in Iraq. Military recruiting would not be in the state of crisis that it is today were it not for the war that has divided the country.


Temple Hills, Md.: More pro-illegal immigration drivel from The Washington Post. If immigrants are so patriotic, why are they underrepresented in the U.S. military? According to you 40,000 of the U.S. Military are immigrants, or about 3 percent of the total force. Legal immigrants make up more than 10 percent of the population. Stop trying to make us believe they are more patriotic than U.S. citizens when they are only after a Green Card or U.S. citizenship; if you took those rewards away their numbers would be lower. One of my ancestors fought in the Civil War as well -- he was black and he fought to improve the conditions of his people in his country. Maybe Jonathan and his family instead of fleeing to America could try the same in Ecuador.

Brigid Schulte: I would disagree with your characterization of The Post, as well as the reasons why immigrants fight. They are complex, and while some certainly are joining the military for college and career benefits -- as are U.S. citizens -- there are other reasons as well. I wrote a story last week about three green card soldiers who were getting their U.S. citizenship. One, an immigrant from St. Vincent, had been in the military for 16 years. To him, the military saved him from a life on the streets of Brooklyn, where he grew up. One was from Canada. He was in college in Florida, where he'd lived for years, when he saw Iraqis topple a statue of Saddam Hussein. He said he felt motivated to fight for his country, the United States -- even though the country on his passport was Canada.


Rockville, Md.: I was aghast after reading your article. Only Americans with the highest integrity should be given the opportunity to defend this country. Citizenship should not be dependent on a foreigner's willingness to kill, and we all know many foreigners (the wrong kind) will kill for American citizenship. Illegal immigrants are criminals and should be deported, not given the opportunity to serve in an venerable American institution defending our homeland.

Brigid Schulte: The problem is, however, that the military is having difficulty recruiting those Americans with the highest integrity. It's become such a crisis that no lesser a light than Gen. Barry McCaffrey wants the president, university presidents, mayors, governors and influential members of the community to offer up their sons and daughters -- to get the best and the brightest in this country to send their children to war. They're not doing it. No one is issuing that call to arms. The country remains deeply divided about the war in Iraq, and that has forced the military to accept thousands of recruits with "moral waivers" who have been involved in petty crimes or had drug offenses in the past. They are accepting more soldiers who score lower on aptitude tests, who have yet to finish high school. Studies have shown that these "Category 4" soldiers tend to wash out faster in boot camp and to have more disciplinary problems.


Overseas: Submitting early because of time zone difference. While I can appreciate that the military needs bodies, particularly in the Army, and that there are immigrants who may be interested in filling those needed vacancies, there are grave historical and force protection issues to be reckoned with before we blithely admit anyone willing, regardless of citizenship, into our military. Of historical note is the difficulty of maintaining multi-national and multi-linguistic forces, the example of the Roman empire when citizens decided they no longer needed to fight for their security, and the use of a draft to maintain national forces versus a volunteer army.

From a force protection/intelligence standpoint, we would be letting persons with tenuous ties to our country have access to our order or battle, weapons capability and an inside view of how our military operates. Perhaps an undocumented Ecuadorian is of minimal force protection threat, but where do we stop? Should we allow Chinese, Russian or Middle Eastern nationals into our military despite the very real intelligence and force protection risk that poses? We have ever-eroding operational security in today's military, between the foreign spouses, the green-card soldiers and the general chattiness of our armed forces. We would be better served by employing a draft to make our current citizens understand the great responsibility of protecting U.S. interests at home and abroad.

Brigid Schulte: In Congress, about the only person talking about a draft is Rep. Charles Rangel. Politically, it's not something politicians are willing to even consider. Protest against the Vietnam War hit a fever pitch because people were being forced to serve in an unpopular war, and many fear the dissatisfaction with the current war could erupt in a similar way with a draft.

The points you make about security, language and the Roman legion make sense when discussing the proposals to go overseas to recruit, to create a sort of U.S. French Foreign Legion. The difference with what I was writing about is this: right now, 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools every year. They speak English. Many are honors students, including the high-schoolers from the Southwest who outshone the MIT team in a robotics competition a few years ago. They feel they are American. Indeed, some were brought here by parents or family members when they were infants, and they know no other country. The question I pose is -- why not them?


Atlanta: Many in this country seem to care little for the lives of soldiers now: their health care, their families, their meager pay and benefits. Adding more non-citizens to their ranks removes any connections that exist to the rest of the population.

Brigid Schulte: Unlike WWII, when the country pulled together and everyone felt the sacrifice of war, you are correct -- the majority of Americans are removed from the military, service and the costs of this war. That's a fact, with or without immigrants in the mix.


New York: Will the military accept children of illegal immigrants?

Brigid Schulte: Technically, no. Military service regulations require that a recruit be a legal permanent resident or green card holder. Some undocumented recruits have gotten in -- it's later discovered -- by using temporary work permits or other documents. Some have used fake IDs and, in one case, someone assumed a U.S. citizen's identity.

Legally, however, Congress has given the military the ability to recruit anyone they deem vital to the national interest.


Suffern, N.Y.: Why should citizenship matter? During World War II I was a Canadian citizen, registered for the draft. When my number was called, I appeared at the induction center with many others -- citizens and non-citizens. The induction officer asked all non-citizens to step forward. When we did, he asked if we had any objections to swearing allegiance to the American flag. All responded that we would be glad to do so. We all were inducted and I'm sure that the others served with honor as I did. Serving in the military earned us our citizenship. Non-citizens should be permitted to serve.

Brigid Schulte: Non-citizens do serve. At any given time, there are about 40,000 immigrants in the U.S. military. But they are required to be legal permanent residents, not here on a tourist visa, temporary work permit or illegally.


Silver Spring, Md.: I think that the overall tone of your article is rooted in the notion that service to our nation is best exemplified by military service. This is of course a common -- if unstated -- idea, but it is so fundamentally flawed that it must be expressly rejected. Isn't it true that America ought to be happy to embrace any healthy, intelligent, ambitious young person already living here, whether or not they find themselves called to take up arms?

Brigid Schulte: Your question is one of the central questions of the immigration debate now on the Hill. One of the provisions they're discussing is the Dream Act. That would open a path to citizenship for undocumented youths who were brought to this country before they were 16, have lived here continuously for five years and are willing to go to college for two years or serve honorably in the military for at least two years.

There are an estimated 750,000 undocumented youths in this category, many of whom would like to go to college but can't afford out-of-state tuition rates or are afraid of being found out and deported. The idea has been around since 2001 and has garnered support from both sides of the aisle. Even many who favor restrictive immigration policies have said they do not object to the idea. The problem is that they worry that granting these youths a path to citizenship would be like a camel's nose under the tent, and lead only to more amnesty. Thus, they support the Dream Act only in conjunction with tougher border enforcement and other measures to stem the inward migration of illegal immigrants.


Rockville, Md.: Jonathan's family overstayed on a five-year Tourist Visa? Did we ever give those out for that long? And aren't the recipients of those visas (normally six months at most) forbidden from working? Reads like Jonathan's parents came to the U.S. lying from the start.

Brigid Schulte: And there's the rub. The family did overstay their visa, and they do work, and yes the U.S. does give out tourist visas that last that long -- sometimes longer. A big part of the immigration argument is how to deal with the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the country who have done the same thing.


Falls Church, Va.: An earlier commenter asked: "Will the military accept children of illegal immigrants?" Your answer only applies to children who are themselves illegals, right? Children of illegal immigrants who are born in this country are U.S. citizens and so would be eligible on that basis, wouldn't they?

Brigid Schulte: Yes


Irony: While this chat about setting up a modern Goth mercenary army goes on, the featured story on the Web site is ... " As the Kids Go Buy: 61 Teens Descend on Tysons, and We're There to Watch." Hilarious. In 100 years, a new Gibbons will use this as a reference point in "The Decline and Fall of the American Empire."

Brigid Schulte: There are many who obviously feel the same way.


Columbia, Md.: But if a child of an illegal immigrant is born in the U.S., that child is an American citizen and can do anything that any other American can do. This is one of the factors that has raised so much concern, in that some families are being divided where one parent is illegal and sent home but the remainder of the family stays but without the one parent.

Brigid Schulte: What many Americans fail to recognize is that there are typically several different kinds of legal status in one family. Parents may be illegal; children born here would be U.S. citizens; older brothers and sisters smuggled in later would be undocumented; an aunt may have a green card, an uncle a work permit, a cousin some kind of temporary status. And families are being and have been ripped apart.


Waterloo, N.Y.: Mercenary service is repugnant to any people, and especially so to a "free" society. It distorts the electorate's decision of "National Interest." The Iraq war would have been impossible under selective service. The whole idea stinks the stench of Hessians, Foreign Legionnaires, and Indian "Sepoys."

Brigid Schulte: Don't forget that one way the war in Iraq is being fought is with private contractors, tens of thousands of whom are armed and in quasi-combat roles.


Arlington, Va.: If only about 40,000 legal immigrants serve in the military, we can expect that the number of illegals who would sign up if allowed would be far smaller still. It's misleading of you to suggest that a couple of thousand more soldiers are really going to "fill the ranks."

Brigid Schulte: There's a pool of about 750,000 undocumented youths of military recruiting age, according to a number of studies. Not all would serve or would want to serve in the military. I didn't suggest that they would fill the ranks, but in a state of crisis, as is the case now, they are an obvious and ready pool to draw from.


Springfield, Va.: I'm a retired Naval officer. Please address the following real-life issues in light of having immigrants in the military:

1. Sailor has a car accident in a Mideast country and a local in the other car dies. Sailor in placed in jail, and the U.S. government can't do anything as he is not a U.S. citizen.

2. Sailor loses security clearance because of financial issues, and finds out there are very few jobs that do not required a clearance.

Brigid Schulte: With 40,000 immigrants currently serving, the military has, I'm sure, run into the first situation. In the second, no immigrants are granted security clearance. That is only given to U.S. citizen soldiers.


Washington: So, if 35 million legal permanent residents produce 40,000 soldiers, we can assume that a pool of maybe 12 million illegal immigrants is likely to produce no more than 10,000 soldiers. That's less than 1 percent of our current armed forces. You don't really think this small amount will make a serious difference to military recruiting, do you?

Brigid Schulte: Who knows? It certainly couldn't hurt. And barring an end to the war, calling off The Surge, putting the brakes on plans to expand the Army and Marine Corps in the next few years, instituting a draft, setting up a foreign legion or forcefully appealing to the nation's youth to serve -- what other options are there?


REMF: Interesting to note that the young man profiled in your piece was pursuing the Navy, where he wouldn't be likely to be placed directly in harm's way and which is not hurting for recruits, unlike the Army or USMC.

Brigid Schulte: Although, because of the current shortage, the military is sending the Navy in to serve with ground forces


Silver Spring, Md.: You mentioned a "state of crisis". The real crisis is the overmilitarization of our society and the glorification of war. Your article doesn't even identify the actual problem, but instead proposes yet another bad solution to the wrong problem. Congratulations!

Brigid Schulte: Touche. You raise the question of backdrop and issues that are and should be long-debated in a free and democratic society.


Brigid Schulte: Thank you everyone for joining me today. The war in Iraq, service to country, immigration, what it means to be an American, what's fair -- these are among the great issues of our day. Thanks to all for sharing their differing and forceful opinions, views and stories.


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