- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

ASSOCIATED PRESS — Even if you are not a U.S. citizen, Uncle Sam wants you.

About 47,500 military people are noncitizens, roughly 4 percent of the total, and the Pentagon is recruiting more.

"We recruit everywhere. We like to look like America and recruit anyone who is qualified," said Jim Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman.

Mr. Cassella said the noncitizens must have green cards certifying they are legally in the country. They may serve only a single term of enlistment two to four years before applying for citizenship and cannot hold a military job that requires a security clearance.

The same legal residents are barred from working as civilian airport screeners in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Some noncitizen servicemen say they thought defending the United States automatically made them an American.

Alberto Castillo learned the hard way that isn't the case. He left Chihuahua, Mexico, as a child and has lived in America for nearly 50 years, four of which were spent in the Army and 21 in the National Guard.

Nobody told him he wasn't a citizen until he applied for a civil service job after leaving active duty. He was referred to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which told him he needed to apply for citizenship.

"If the military is picking up people left and right, they should make you a citizen automatically," said Mr. Castillo, 55, of San Antonio. He is applying for citizenship now.

Marine Lance Cpl. Karina Bejarano, 24, also mistakenly believed she was a citizen.

"You have to swear in and swear to defend this country. I would figure you do that and boom-boom, you become a citizen," said Cpl. Bejarano, who was born in Peru and moved to the United States when she was 10. She plans to apply for citizenship next month.

Maj. Ben Owens, a Pentagon spokesman, said there is no policy requiring recruiters to discuss citizenship.

The military does provide a faster route to citizenship. Legal permanent residents may become U.S. citizens after serving in the military for three years; the wait for civilians is five years. But their service does not exempt them from civics and English proficiency tests or immigration fees.

Rep. Martin Frost, Texas Democrat, has written legislation to reduce the required military service to two years, waive fees and let soldiers go through the citizenship processes at U.S. embassies. Mr. Frost said that under current policy, noncitizen service members stationed abroad must pay their way back to the United States for citizenship tests and their naturalization oath.

"If people serve two years honorably in the military, certainly they should be able to become citizens," said Mr. Frost, who is married to a two-star Army general. "Anyone putting his or her life on the line to defend the country has established that he or she is a great American."

Mr. Frost will try this week to include the measure in an emergency spending bill.

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