Army Spec. Kendell K. Frederick's U.S. citizenship plaque is not proudly displayed on his parents' wall. Instead, it's buried in a pile of military and immigration documents they find difficult to read.
It's dated Oct. 19, 2005. But that's not when the 21-year-old Trinidad native took part in a citizenship ceremony. It was the day he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. The sole reason Frederick, a generator mechanic, was on that road was to give his fingerprints to become a U.S. citizen. It was only his second convoy outside the gates of Forward Operating Base Speicher in Tikrit.
"To me, it was just a slap in the face," his mother, Michelle Murphy, said yesterday, referring to the plaque that arrived on the family's doorstep two weeks ago.
Murphy says her son should never have been on the road. As a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq, Frederick was eligible to become a U.S. citizen within two or three months after immigration officials began processing his application. But a series of errors by immigration officials, Murphy says, delayed action for months.
In the end, he was told that fingerprints he had given earlier would not be accepted -- and that he had to give them again if he wanted to become an American. That meant a day trip to a logistic support base near Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad.
"He was excited to know that he had the opportunity to leave Iraq as a U.S. citizen," Staff Sgt. Adrian Davis wrote last month in a letter to Murphy. Davis had helped Frederick with his citizenship application and spoke to him the day before his death.
The explosion occurred on the entrance road to Speicher, just as Frederick's convoy was returning home.
At a news conference yesterday, Murphy stood side by side with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and other elected officials as they called for changes to the citizenship process for active-duty soldiers, including new legislation in Frederick's name to make the process easier.
They also demanded that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff -- whose agency oversees immigration -- apologize to Murphy for her son's death.
"He was serving his nation, and that nation that he was serving did not serve him," Mikulski said. "He took that test of citizenship every single day when he was in the line of fire."
Only troops who hold green cards can serve in the military, and today, there are an estimated 40,000 active-duty soldiers in this category. At least 3,200 are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an estimated 2,800 have citizenship applications in the pipeline.
Immigration officials, Mikulski said, did not send Frederick's application to a military processing unit. They returned it because he had not included a fee, although military personnel are not required to pay. After his original fingerprints were not accepted, Frederick was told to report to an office in Maryland, although he was serving in Iraq. Immigration employees, Mikulski said, would not listen to Murphy's response that her son was not in the United States.
Chris Bentley, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, said yesterday that the agency shared the family's grief. But he said the agency was following proper procedures when it handled Frederick's application.
He said his agency received an incomplete application from Frederick on June 8. He had checked a box saying he was not in the military and did not enclose the fee. So it was returned to his parent's Randallstown address, Bentley said. Frederick's fingerprints also had incomplete information.
"There was no way to verify when and where the fingerprints were taken and who took the fingerprints," Bentley said. "Because of the security measures we have in place, that's an automatic rejection."
When the agency learned that Frederick was a soldier in Iraq, it contacted the military. On Oct. 18, it launched the citizenship process for Frederick, Bentley said.
The next day Frederick was killed.
In his letter, Davis said the fingerprints had to be resubmitted because they were taken in Iraq on a red form, which was only for criminals. Bentley said he had no knowledge about this.
Mikulski said the proposed legislation -- the Kendell Frederick Citizenship Assistance Act -- will go a long way toward clearing up the backlog of military noncitizen cases and provide "real customer service" for military personnel, including an exclusive 800 number. Cummings said it would help many soldiers facing situations similar to Frederick's.
"He spent a long time trying to become a citizen, over a year," Cummings said. "It took probably five minutes to make him a citizen after he died. You shouldn't have to die to become a U.S. citizen when you are fighting for the United States of America."
Frederick was 15 years old when he left Trinidad. Within a year, he had lost his Caribbean lilt. He loved to draw and listen to rap music. At Randallstown High School, he joined the Army ROTC. He believed the military was a way to get an education. By the time he was deployed to Iraq in December 2004, he was trained as a power generator equipment mechanic. At his memorial service, his comrades described him as kind and funny, someone who always had a smile on his face.
On Veterans Day last month, Murphy got a tattoo of a heart with wings on her back. In the center was her son's name, Kendell.
The day before Frederick was killed, Davis recounted in his letter, they had this exchange over the phone:
Frederick thanked him for help with the citizenship application.
"No SPC Frederick . . . thank you," Davis replied. "After all, you're the one that's here fighting for a country that you technically don't belong to."
Davis told him that he was honored to help Frederick and four other soldiers become citizens, and that Frederick should have been finished with his paperwork by now. He told Frederick to make sure he placed his fingerprints on a blue card.
"I know, I know, and I'll get it. . . . I promise," replied Frederick.
He laughed and they hung up.
The day after Frederick was killed, Davis called immigration officials and told them the specialist had died. Then, he asked them to grant Frederick citizenship anyway. His packet was complete. His fingerprints, he said, would be included.
Had he lived, Frederick would have become a U.S. citizen in a ceremony scheduled for Thursday in Baghdad.