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Military service offers fast track to citizenship

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Sgt. Carmen Villa says she was nervous, excited and proud the day she became a U.S. citizen.

Excited and proud are easy to understand. But why would anyone be nervous taking the citizenship oath after surviving two deployments in Iraq -- one as a bodyguard for a senior U.S. military official?

"I am still processing it," she told The Washington Times in a telephone interview after pledging allegiance to the United States at a ceremony Wednesday at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Sgt. Villa, who joined the U.S. military out of high school in 2002, said she initially enlisted because she saw the U.S. Army as "a good career, with benefits ... an adventure, an experience."

It was the experience that convinced her she wanted to become an American citizen.

"We were there for a purpose," she said, adding that bonding with her comrades was another factor in her decision. "I felt it would make me feel closer to them."

Sgt. Villa, a Mexican-born longtime green-card holder who came to the U.S. at age 6, could have become a naturalized citizen years ago.

After she became a soldier, the United States extended an invitation.

Many of the nearly 50,000 green-card holders who have naturalized in the military since a special program was set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks qualified for a fast track to citizenship because of their military service.

The Defense Department is piloting an expansion of the program to some foreigners in the United States who do not hold green cards.

Under the pilot program, known as Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, or MAVNI, up to 1,000 foreigners who legally have been in the United States for two years or more can earn their U.S. citizenship by signing up if they have medical or linguistic skills that are in special demand.

S. Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, told The Times 193 had enlisted under the linguistic-skills portion of the program and eight under the medical-skills provisions.

The military "has a critical need for qualified health care professionals and people with language and associated culture capabilities," Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said. "There are highly qualified people legally in the United States, available to address this need."

She said more than 29,000 noncitizens are serving in the military, and about 8,000 enlist each year. "Legal aliens have enriched our forces by supporting our nation in previous wars, and their unique backgrounds are especially valuable in today's Global War on Terror," she said by e-mail.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security official Michael Aytes said similar programs fast-tracked immigrants who served during World War II and the Korean War.

Mr. Aytes is acting deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. The agency organized the Tegucigalpa ceremony where Mr. Aytes administered the oath to Sgt. Villa and a comrade from the Honduras-based U.S. Joint Task Force Bravo.

Honduras is the 15th foreign country where the agency has staged such ceremonies since 2004 but the first in Latin America, he said.

The troops sworn in at such events "are our premium customers," he said. "We follow them 'round the world, wherever they are serving."

He added that the agency stages a few such events every month -- ranging in size from events like Wednesday's, welcoming just a couple of new citizens, to ones for several hundred. Ceremonies have been held in war zones -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- on battleships, and at U.S. bases in Europe and Asia.

The ceremony was "a very emotional affair," said Sgt. Rebecca Danet, a spokeswoman for Joint Task Force Bravo. "I teared up."

Mr. Aytes said such reactions are typical, which could explain why even the most battle-hardened participants can feel a bit nervous.

"There's nothing more magnificent than seeing these brave men and women" take the oath. "We are recognizing the commitment that they have made," he said.

The existing program -- and its piloted expansion -- provoked a rare moment of unity from immigration advocates and critics, who voiced support.

"A very narrow and tailored program like this [MAVNI pilot] is worth giving a try," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports strict limits on immigration.

"My concern is the institutional pressures are always going to be to expand these kinds of measures," he said. "We don't want to end up using foreigners as cheap labor for the military."

These concerns are dismissed by immigration advocates.

"I think we can all agree that someone who risks his or her life and fights for our country should be allowed to become a citizen," said Glen Wasserstein, an attorney who advocates expanding legal immigration.

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