NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The first foreign country that Christian Bueno-Galdos ever traveled to was the United States, where he moved when he was 7. The second was Iraq, where he was killed this month serving under the U.S. flag.
Bueno-Galdos, a U.S. Army sergeant originally from Peru, was one of about 31,000 foreign-born soldiers now in U.S. armed forces — about 1.5 percent of the military — according to the Defense Department. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the department says about 150 immigrants have been killed while serving. Several among them, including Bueno-Galdos, lived in New Jersey.
His father, Carlos Bueno, said the family struggled to decide where to bury their son: in the Peruvian homeland he cherished or in the country he felt a patriotism for that lead him to the Army right out of high school.
“His happiness was the Army,” Carlos Bueno said in Spanish. “He loved this country, he felt it was his own.”
The 25-year-old is scheduled to be buried in Totowa, N.J., this Memorial Day weekend with full military honors. Flags across the state were flying at half-staff Friday in his memory.
Bueno-Galdos became a U.S. citizen in 2005 through his military service. He was serving his second tour of duty in Iraq when he was among five soldiers gunned down by a distraught comrade at a stress clinic on May 11, officials said.
Foreign-born soldiers have served and died in America’s armed forces since the Revolutionary War, according to Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, a project officer for the Army on immigration issues and a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“We’re a nation of immigrants, so why would we bar immigrants from the military?” Stock said. “In fact, we’ve won wars largely because of the contributions of immigrant soldiers.”
Legal immigrants are eligible to join the military, but they cannot perform jobs that require U.S. citizenship, such as intelligence, according to Stock.
They are eligible for expedited U.S. citizenship after serving for a few months, but must serve honorably for at least five years to maintain their eligibility. Illegal immigrants are not accepted in the armed forces, according to Stock, but can be called to serve in a mandatory draft.
Stock said many members of the military dismiss critics who say allowing immigrants to serve reflects poorly on the willingness of the native-born to enlist, or encourages people to seek a shortcut to citizenship.
“I think it would be wonderful if Americans started studying Arabic and Pashtun at age 3, but there doesn’t seem to be any effort at teaching anything in our schools other than English,” she said. “You cannot deploy globally without the contributions of immigrants; the cultural skills and the language skills they contribute are integral to the success of the war effort.”
Immigrants have not always been rewarded for their service under the U.S. flag. Filipino veterans who fought for the U.S. against Japanese forces in World War II have been campaigning for more than 60 years to be compensated equally to U.S. soldiers. They were recently awarded $198 million in compensation as part of the multibillion-dollar stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama in February.
David Santos, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said immigrants are honored for their service in today’s military. U.S. immigration officials are planning a Memorial Day naturalization ceremony Monday for 125 immigrants serving with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“The freedoms we enjoy are due to the sacrifices they make in defense of our country,” Santos said. “They deserve nothing less than the best.”
The military is expanding its efforts to recruit highly skilled immigrants, especially those with sought-after language skills, according to Stock.
“They serve side-by-side with their American comrades, and they’re just as valuable to the team,” she said. “They’re fighting for their buddies just as the Americans are fighting for their buddies; nobody’s in the battlefield asking: ‘Who is a citizen?'”
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