Even though his coffin was draped with the American flag, U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Riayan Tejeda, 26, was not a U.S.citizen. Tejeda, who was killed in combat in Iraq, was a native of the Dominican Republic.
Eight years ago he joined the Marines after graduating from George Washington High School.
“I hope the United States will remember that my son died for this country,” his father Julio Tejada told Newsday.
Tejeda’s death has brought attention to stories of immigrants who fought for the U.S. military throughout history and the current controversy over their immigration status.
For immigrants, joining the military could lead to a faster track to citizenship, which allows them and their immediate family to reap the same benefits as native-born U.S. citizens.
In early 1990s, immigrant soldiers became eligible for citizenship after three years of legal residency, two years less than civilians. More than 3,600 immigrant soldiers became U.S. citizens from 1994 to 1999.
Last July, President Bush signed an executive order that temporarily allows immigrant soldiers to apply for citizenship immediately. Nearly 5,500 military personnel applied and some already got their citizenships.
There is no law prohibiting illegal immigrants from joining in the army but the armed forces representative says anyone without proper documents is rejected, according to a report in the New York Times.
Tejeda and at least six other U.S. servicemen killed in the war in Iraq had not yet become citizens. Six of these immigrants were granted citizenship posthumously but their relatives did not receive the benefits that would normally go to the families of the citizens.
“It is an honorary status in commemoration of the valor and the sacrifices of the deceased,” the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services explained in the memo.
More than 36,000 service members are non-citizens, making up about 5 percent of active duty service members. About a third come from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries and the rest are from China, Vietnam, Canada, Korea, India and other countries.
In New York City alone, 40 percent of Navy recruits were immigrants, 36 percent in the Marines and 27 percent in the Army.
Many are surprised by the number of non-citizens serving in the U.S. military but others say immigrants have always been a part of the military.
“Basically, both immigrants or non-citizens have served in the military since at least the Revolutionary war,” said University of Michigan Professor Cara Wong, who has been studying immigrants and war.
There were over 500,000 immigrants who fought in the Civil War. They were allowed to form their own units, elect their officers and speak their native tongues. “The Germans are true and patriotic,” said President Abraham Lincoln about the German immigrants volunteering to fight for the union army.
Some immigrant soldiers were even honored by the army for their bravery. During WWII Mexican born soldier Marcario Garcia, whose company was pinned down by the Nazis, fought his way out and, though wounded, was able to return with captured prisoners. Garcia was promoted to staff sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor.
“The distinction between legal and illegal immigrants was non-existent until well after the Civil War,” said professor Wong.
The situation of non-citizen soldiers has caught the eyes of lawmakers in Washington D.C. Some are introducing bills that would shorten the waiting period to two years for foreign-born soldiers and others even argue for immediate citizenship for all immigrants on active duty in the armed forces.
But that did not happen soon enough for Tejeda. At his funeral, hundreds of people gathered to honor him at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Washington.
“He may never have been made officially a citizen of our nation,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “But we are proud he was a citizen of New York.”
Spokesmen for Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Charles Rangel said that they are seeking citizenship posthumously for Tejada if his family desires.
An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen.