- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2002

Scores of newly minted Americans took the oath of citizenship this week in one of the largest ceremonies of its kind.

But there was a twist. These 147 raised their right hands aboard the Navy carrier USS Constellation. Years before they were citizens, they were already proud members of the Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard.

The U.S. armed forces is home to about 31,000 noncitizens, 2 percent of the 1.4 million active force, an infusion that came in especially handy during the low-recruiting days of the late 1990s.

It long has been an American practice to sign up noncitizens as enlisted personnel. Recent numbers show the trend has held steady.

In 1995, the military services took in 5,267 noncitizens, 3 percent of total accessions. Last year, the numbers increased to 7,940, or 4 percent of all inductees.

The system of inducting foreigners went largely unnoticed before September 11. But the attack by 19 terrorists who entered this country on temporary visas has drawn scrutiny to the military's noncitizen program.

President Bush called more attention to the practice last month, when he signed an executive order allowing all noncitizens on active military duty on September 11 to apply for U.S. citizenship immediately. The waiting time normally is three years.

The 147 personnel taking the oath on the Constellation in San Diego already had been processed before the president's July 3 order.

"The fact you decided to serve in the military speaks volumes to your decision to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," Rear Adm. Jose Betancourt told the group, according to the Copley News Service. The Mexican-born admiral served as an example that naturalized citizens can succeed in the armed forces.

"I joined to protect this country, so it makes sense to become a citizen," said Staff Sgt. Mike Spencer, a Marine helicopter pilot and native of England, at the ceremony.

The ceremony bestowed citizenship on 72 personnel from the Philippines and 19 from Mexico, as well inductees from Micronesia, Romania, Sri Lanka, Togo and 26 other countries.

A Pentagon "information paper" on the noncitizen program states that each applicant "must first undergo a series of background checks, and the positions in which they can serve are limited. Regardless, many go on to distinguish themselves in the service of their adopted country, a long-standing tradition."

Said Maj. Sandy Troeber, a Pentagon spokeswoman, "We don't target anyone special to join the military. We have target audiences in our marketing and advertising. But we don't target any specific group of people. We don't have quotas."

The general rules for noncitizen military personnel are:

•They must be a permanent legal U.S. resident, holding a green card from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

•They are restricted to the enlisted ranks. Only a citizen may be commissioned an officer. Within the enlisted ranks, many technical positions remain off-limits because they require a security clearance. They may not serve in electronics and intelligence ratings, air-crew positions or special-operations forces, such as Navy SEALs.

•Background security checks are similar for both citizens and green-card holders. Both groups are fingerprinted and checked against FBI files. But resident aliens also are screened by the INS.

•The Pentagon plays no role in supporting a person's citizenship application. "This process is an individual responsibility," it says. Military service, however, does speed up the process. Permanent residents wait five years for a chance at citizenship; those in the military, unless they were serving September 11, must wait three years.

"The Department of Defense supports the enlistment of aliens to the extent permitted by existing law and subject to their being otherwise qualified for service in the United States Armed Forces," the Pentagon says.

Despite strict regulations for inducting resident aliens, the Pentagon says it does not track them during their military career or keep statistics on nations of origin.

"We don't normally track citizenship statistics," Maj. Troeber said. "It's never been an issue before."

The Navy is by far the largest recruiter of noncitizens. Of the 31,000 aliens on active duty, 15,706 are sailors.

Lt. Ingrid Mueller, spokeswoman for Navy Recruiting Command, said the higher number stems from the service's long tradition of recruiting in the Hispanic and Filipino communities.

The Navy maintained recruiting offices in the Philippines for decades until 1992, when it gave up its sprawling base at Subic Bay.

Some of those recruited 10 and 20 years ago are still in the Navy, passing along positive reports to other Filipinos, Lt. Mueller said.

"We believe we've been successful in recruiting noncitizens because we believe representation from diverse cultures is essential to building a fighting force that mirrors the demographics of America," she said.

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