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Military Recruiting Slips Among Foreigners

Updated: Thursday, Apr. 14, 2005 - 4:03 PM

Victor Raygosa, 25, an animation student, poses for a photo April 7, 2005, at the Santa Monica College campus in Santa Monica, Calif. Raygosa is among an increasing number of Green Card holders who are no longer interested in signing up for the U.S. military. The number of foreign nationals enlisting in the military is dropping notably, even as the government has made service a fast track to American citizenship. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The number of foreign nationals enlisting in the U.S. military is dropping, even though service now provides a fast track to American citizenship, an Associated Press review of military data shows.

The decrease in non-citizen enlistees, who hail from countries such as the Philippines, Mexico, Nigeria and Germany, has hit all branches of the armed services, which already are struggling with recruitment as the U.S. presence in Iraq enters year three.

While U.S. citizen enlistments also have fallen, the drop is more pronounced among non-citizens _ legal immigrants the military has long let serve as everything from cooks to front line soldiers, though not generally as officers.

Although the Pentagon has placed a heavy emphasis on recruiting, officials say they're not concerned about the enlistment dip among non-citizens.

The decline surprises immigration and military experts, who expected that green-card holders who might otherwise wait years to become Americans would jump at the citizenship offer President Bush extended nearly three years ago.

Instead, the annual number of non-citizen enlistees has fallen nearly 20 percent from fiscal year 2001 _ the last full year before the changes _ to fiscal year 2004, according to military data. Much of the decline, from 11,829 to 9,477 recruits, came last year alone.

By comparison, annual enlistments among citizens dropped 12 percent, from 264,832 to 232,957 recruits.

Although non-citizens represent a fraction of active-duty personnel, every recruit matters as casualties mount and more reserves are being called up than at any time since the Korean War. One recent study for the Defense Department, using statistics through 2002, found that non-citizens who enlist were less likely than citizens to leave within the first three years; nearly 20 percent of them left in that period, compared with 32 percent of citizens.

Some 142 non-citizen troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Non-citizens' casualty rates represent 8 percent of the total despite being less than 3 percent of active duty military personnel.

Bush pitched citizenship not as a selling point but as a reward for service. Last year, more than 7,500 people already in uniform gained citizenship through the military, the highest numbers since the Vietnam War.

But potential recruits who are legal immigrants are less drawn to the offer, noting they can apply to be citizens without risking their lives.

Victor Raygosa and his friends are among the skeptics. After flirting with Navy enlistment _ recruiters would leave their cards at high school football practice and stop by his home _ Raygosa chose instead to work odd jobs and get an education.

"My mother told me if I went into the military, she would go crazy," said Raygosa, 25, who came to Los Angeles from Mexico 10 years ago and now attends Santa Monica College.

A few months ago, he filled out his citizenship application.

"It was easy, a lot easier than joining the military," he said. "I can wait."

America's roughly 30,000 foreign soldiers come from more than 100 countries, with the largest contingent living in California. More than a third are Hispanic.

Non-citizen soldiers are hardly a new phenomenon.

Irish immigrants fought in the Civil War. During World War II, more than 100,000 non-citizens enlisted, most from Europe.

In July 2002, Bush ordered automatic citizenship eligibility for foreign nationals on active duty who joined on or after Sept. 11, 2001 (citizenship also was granted to those who died in war and their families). In November 2003, Bush signed legislation that let all non-citizens apply for citizenship after one year of service, rather than three.

Immigration officials have staged naturalization ceremonies in military zones and accepted applications online.

Conservative groups first warned that expediting citizenship would make the military rely too heavily on foreigners.

That hasn't happened _ the total number of non-citizen enlistees has fallen each of the past five fiscal years.

The dip was smallest between fiscal years 2002 and 2003, according to military data, when the Army and Marines experienced a small rise in non-citizen enlistments. By fiscal year 2004, however, Army and Marine non-citizen enlistments dropped to their lowest level in at least five years. Annual non-citizen enlistments in the Navy and Air Force have declined without exception.

Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, said he was surprised by the dip but still believes the military will be forced to turn toward non-citizens.

"We can't get enough middle-class kids to die for our country," he said. "This is the next step."

It's difficult to isolate one variable that affects recruiting, said Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. He suggested the most important factors are "the improving economy and the ongoing military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Other possible explanations: increased academic standards could shrink the non-citizen pool, as could subtle shifts to recruiting in rural areas, said Louis DiSipio, who teaches Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

The Pentagon simply says that recruitment numbers tend to fluctuate.

"It's not something we are worried about. I don't think anyone has looked into it," said spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke.

Recruiters say they don't dangle citizenship as an enticement, only mentioning it if a recruit seems interested.

Army Sgt. Rosa Weston, a topographic surveyor and 35-year-old a single mother, took the citizenship offer. Yet that wasn't her goal when she joined in 1999.

Weston, a native of Mexico who has lived in the United States for 20 years, wanted to give her two young sons a better lot and wanted a college education.

Serving in Iraq made her more appreciative of the freedoms she had back home, Weston said, and after years of putting it off, she finally became a citizen at a March ceremony former President George H.W. Bush attended at Texas A&M University. She wants to be able to vote and to sponsor relatives still in Mexico.

But mostly, Weston said, she took her citizenship oath because, "I consider this home."

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