Sunday, July 14, 2002

A decision by President Bush to grant immediate citizenship to more than 15,000 noncitizen members of the military would mean more opportunities for those like Army Spec. Chantha Yem, who is from Thailand and currently serving in Bosnia.

Citizenship offer
opens doors for
many in military

Bush's order affects more than
15,000 in the armed forces

By Gregg K. Kakesako

President Bush's decision granting immediate citizenship to the more than 15,000 noncitizen members of the military is being greeted with enthusiasm by several 25th Infantry Division soldiers keeping guard in Bosnia.

Several of them, who are midway through a six-month peacekeeping rotation, said Bush's executive order could mean better jobs, advancement and opportunities not open to them now.

Army Spec. Chantha Yem, who is from Thailand, said in an e-mail interview that he wants a career in law enforcement and that "most law enforcement jobs require you to be a U.S. citizen."

Army Pvt. 1st Class Delfino Capetillo-Roman, who was born in Mexico, said gaining U.S. citizenship would give him "the same opportunities as everyone else."

Under President Bush's new order, Airman 1st Class Sarah-Jane Allen, at work Tuesday on Hickam Air Force Base, can now become a U.S. citizen. Allen is from South Africa.

"Not being a citizen limits you in so many ways," said Capetillo-Roman, 24.

"Even though the Army provides many opportunities for people to succeed, I cannot take full advantage because being a citizen is usually a prerequisite," he said.

At Hickam Air Force Base, Airman 1st Class Sarah-Jane Allen, a native of South Africa, said: "It's changed my whole outlook about staying in the military. I am now looking at making the military a career."

At Kaneohe Bay, Marines will be meeting with military lawyers Wednesday to learn more about the program.

During a Fourth of July celebration in Ripley, W.Va., Bush announced that he signed an executive order granting expedited citizenship consideration to noncitizen members of the military who have been on active duty since the war on terrorism began. Bush's order covers only those in the uniform since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Current immigration laws allow noncitizen members in peacetime to become citizens after three years of service, instead of the usual five-year wait required of nonmilitary applicants.

Army Spec. Maria Elena Gabbi, who was born in Milan, Italy, said the change would give her the opportunity to become an officer or change her career to something such as military intelligence or criminal investigation.

Gabbi, 28, said she enlisted in the Army two years ago "to prove to myself I could do it" and to help her get a master's degree in international business.

Yem, 22, said she plans to attend college once she gets out of the Army and get a law enforcement job.

"Being in the military has helped me learn a lot about myself, mentally and physically," Yem said. "It taught me a lot -- not just about the Army, but life itself."

Allen, 30, who got her green card in Cape Town nearly three years ago, said her resident alien status prevented her from becoming an officer in the Air Force and pursuing another career as a public affairs officer.

"It's unbelievable," said Allen, who received an undergraduate degree in finance from the University of South Africa. "I am in shock and amazement. I called my parents in London with the good news."

She called Bush her "personal hero."

The White House said Bush's order is consistent with actions taken by previous presidents under immigration laws that allow noncitizens to receive immediate naturalization while on active duty during periods of military hostilities.

In World Wars I and II, there were 43,000 noncitizen military participants who became naturalized citizens. Another 31,000 fought during the Korean War. President Carter signed a similar executive order following Vietnam, and President Clinton signed one after the Persian Gulf War. These orders collectively gave American citizenship to more than 100,000 members of the U.S. military.

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