- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

It has been clear to anyone paying attention since September 11, 2001, that the nation's immigration authorities are bureaucratic nincompoops whose ineptness and inability to keep track of potential terrorists is the stuff of legends.
Example after example authenticating this has filled newspaper columns and nightly news broadcasts for two years and every report contains an element of "you've got to be kidding" from the Immigration and Naturalization Service sending out notices to the September 11 hijackers after their attack to the admission by the Justice Department that INS hasn't managed to keep track of half the illegal aliens and visa jumpers in this country.
But for just plain disgusting stupidity based on a rigid interpretation of the law few immigration decisions have been more upsetting than the treatment of a young U.S. Marine who reportedly made the mistake of not answering positively to a question on his citizenship application because he didn't think it pertinent.
Sgt. Khanh T. Nguyen, 30, had been in some small-time juvenile difficulty when he was 15, according to a recent report. The Marines knew about it when he joined after high school (his mother had married a U.S. soldier and brought him here from South Vietnam when he was a baby) but when he sought to become a full-fledged American, he didn't think it was significant enough to mention. After all it hadn't disqualified him from defending the nation.
In truth, it wasn't a disqualification for citizenship. The immigration officials admit that the teenage offenses being arrested for a schoolyard assault, possession of alcohol and shoplifting wouldn't have been enough to have his application denied. But not answering, "yes" to the "have you ever been arrested" question brought him a rejection. Never mind that he served six years in the Marines, receiving an honorable discharge, a fact that made him eligible for citizenship because had been on active duty more than three years in the U.S. military. Never mind that he has been a model citizen ever since and had joined the Marine Corps Reserve. Never mind that Sgt. Nguyen's unit was called up for the Iraqi war and was in the heart of the fighting where he comported himself bravely from all accounts.
He isn't the only noncitizen serving in a military unit. There are 13,000 of them in the reserves and 37,000 who are on full-time active duty. Since the war began, four of these have given up their lives and have been awarded citizenship posthumously. How wonderful for them. You want to be a citizen, pal? Get yourself killed in action. The horrific irony of this shouldn't be lost even on the most insensitive immigration officer, which may be most of them.
"I have spent my entire adult life earning my citizenship by serving the United States of America honorably and well as a United States Marine," Sgt. Nguyen reportedly wrote the immigration authorities last November. He asked them to allow him to clear his name and become an official American, as if he already wasn't. He managed to get a hearing on his citizenship denial Feb. 4 but he received overseas deployment orders on Jan. 31 and left on Feb. 7. On March 20, while he was in the thick of battle, he was notified he had once again been turned down for not providing accurate information on his original application.
When Charles Dickens, speaking through Mr. Bumble, opined that sometimes "the law is a ass" he most definitely was talking about those who serve in the immigration service of this nation. There is no doubt about that.
Sgt. Nguyen can apply again when he gets home under an order by President Bush to expedite citizenship for those who served on active duty in the U.S. military during the war on terrorism. But "expedited" could still mean a long wait, and there is no assurance that the same attitude might not prevail even if the old INS has new leadership in the recently created Department of Homeland Security. After all the INS personnel are probably the same.
This entire business is ludicrous. The president clearly needs to step into the middle of this absurdity for the sake of Sgt. Nguyen and every other soldier who risked his life for a country that doesn't have enough gumption to grant them immediate recognition. Since South Vietnam, where he was born, no longer exists, Sgt. Nguyen is literally a man without a country. Given the circumstances, that is a travesty and a tragedy.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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