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Illegal Soldiers

Daniela Gerson

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Jose at Hollywood High School
(Daniela Gerson)
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Immigrants turned out in record numbers to vote for President-elect Obama, but it's unclear whether he'll tackle comprehensive immigration reform as president. As a Senator, Obama supported the DREAM Act, which offered help to children who were brought illegally over the border. They could obtain legal status through higher education or the military. Daniela Gerson reports that the act could be a win-win for both immigrant youth and military recruiters.


It's 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and the Hollywood High School gym is packed. All eyes are focused on four uniformed ROTC cadets as they spin rifles and march in unison across a basketball court. Twenty-two-year-old Jose watches from the side, beaming. We're only using his first name for reasons that will become clear. For the past few months, Jose's been coming to school at dawn, helping the team to prepare for this competition. Five years ago, it was Jose who was the focus of attention. One of the battalion's top achievers, military recruiters were competing to offer him the best package.

"I would be more than honored to do my best for this country due to everything they've done�for me," says Jose. "But it's just like a nightmare right now."

Jose grew up thinking he could do whatever he wanted. But it didn't turn out that way. He was raised in Southern California, skateboarding and taking trips to the beach. Jose was a good student and even won a citizenship award in elementary school. But when he was a teenager he asked his mother for his Social Security number.

"That's when she came out with 'We're not legal here,' he explains. "So I didn't have no rights." Jose was born in Mexico and then smuggled across the border when he was three years old.

He was too young to remember the border crossing. "It's not like I knew what was going on at the time when I was crossing the border," he says. "It's not like I knew I was breaking laws. I have no words for it."

At first, it didn't seem to matter that he wasn't a citizen. In high school he won scholarships to look at colleges in the Northeast and to go on an Outward Bound expedition. Sergeant Wilbert Adams was his Junior ROTC instructor.

"He was one of the best," says Adams. "He couldn't have held that position he had, top position, battalion commander, had he not been good from the very start."

But as an illegal immigrant, Jose couldn't join the military. So Sergeant Adams watched one of his best students hit a wall.

"You feel helpless," Adams says. "There's not a thing I can do. It makes you want to cry. I have cried sometimes."

The Hollywood Armed Forces Career Center is just a few blocks from school. Even as Army and Navy recruiters work hard there to enlist soldiers, they're turning away scores of illegal immigrants. Sergeant Juan Carmona, the commander of the Army recruiting station, says the inquiries are constant -- a minimum of three to four calls a day.

"I don't know where the rumor started that they could join without having permanent residency," says Carmona.

Unlike most of the illegal immigrants calling the recruiters, Jose didn't choose to come to America. And some lawmakers in Washington say that should make all the difference. Federal legislation first introduced in 2001 would enable hundreds of thousand of youth like Jose to receive legal status through education or military service. It was called the DREAM Act, and it collapsed in 2007. Critics charged it could promote further illegal immigration. Under the Obama administration, it could resurface, this time with the votes it needs to pass.

Even if the government never forgives Jose's trespasses, he will claim this country as his own. At his family's North Hollywood home, Jose points to two flags on the wall, one American and one Mexican. "That US Flag, that's mine," he says. "I know I was not born here, but I do feel like it's 100 percent I'm part of this country."

It's after 9:00 p.m., and Jose starts to get ready to go. He works a graveyard shift at an airplane factory using the identity of a cousin who has legal status. For now, assembling military planes and coaching the drill team at Hollywood High are as close as he can get to fighting for his country.


  • Comment | Refresh


    From PA, 08/22/2011


    By gdywag gdywag

    From xlpdwNtIq, NH, 03/20/2011

    By Isabel Benito


    I'm illegal too. Just like Jose adn Ivoone. I have my plans and dreams just as well. I'm 18 and in the 11th grade. My plan was to enlist for a Military branch. I began studying hard to take my ASVAB test just this last week. I talked to recruiters and totally gave me the wrong info. Luckly I have great people who trust me and support me with everything that i do. So my teacher found out what i was doing. He knows about my status, he knows my plans. And before i went too far with this, he searched and searched all in one day. And i thank God for the fact that i have found lost of people guiding me. The sad part is that i'm illegal, and with that i can not do much. I cried because i was really getting into all this, i was thinking to join the Marines. Unfortunatly i can't. it was very dissapointing... i'm still not over it. I felt like all the doors i once saw opened for me where shutting all at once right on my nose. It's getting difficult for me to not loose hope. I was looking for more info. and happend to find this site. SOme stories hace touched me, and made me cry. Some have left me really dissapointed. But anywhre i'll go, i'mma find people who will be this way.. "racist"... It's alright though.. guess we invaded a place that was not ours. I didn't know there were such people. It hurts me, but it makes me stronger though. And i'm not blaming anyone. Not even my parents. I'm thanking them.. they risked everthing, left everything behind, family, lands,.. ect. All that for their kids to have a better life here. My sibblings and i do have a much better life, than the one we would had. We have and education, assist school. Good kids. My parents are not stupid or ignorant. They've done the best to educate me well and guide me through our tough times. THey work hard for us to have food, roof, and clothing. I see them grow old everyday.. and someday i wanna paid back for all that they've done. Still you may all say what you want... but can annyone get up that couch, turn off your tv.. and go to the job that many of our parents do? No right?... so my questions if all us immigrants wre the get the out of here.. what would you all do?.. You are the stupid and ignorant ones period. Guess i can't give up.. that doesn't form part of me. There is always a way to do things. If doors are shut on me i'll find a way. SOme day i will be in a green uniform. Standing up for my country.. America. It would be an honor. IT is the land whre i found a better future. And if i can't well other place will bring my success. Others will appreciate me better.

    By yvonne gonzalez


    i am an illegal immigrant. I am currently 17 and to be honest last year (11th grade) i gave up on every dream i ever had wanted to accomplish in the usa. this year (last in high school) i started to have a bit of hope. i realize that i might never be a us citizen and i can accept that. but i will never sell myself short. i will accomplish great things in life one way or another and a citizenship is not gonna stop me. right now i am taking law enforcement 2; i am certified in 911 dispatch i will have about 7 national certifications related to law enforcement at the end of the year and currently (even though i had really bad grades last year.) my gpa is 3.2 out of 4.0; i qualify for paid education for 2 years and i am gonna take that opportunity even if i can't practice the career i want. I want to become a police officer, but can't, even though i have true understanding and passion for this job. I Wanted to go to the air force but can't. but i am not gonna sell myself short. I am gonna finish learning my 3rd language ,french, and i migh leave this country to achieve greatness. I do not want to leave but i seriously will not accept the treatment and ignorance that goes around on illegals even like myself who were brought here without permission whatsoever. This place has become my home. I love america but america does not give a crap about all these good people in it so im not gonna take it i will succed somewhere else. so my advice for all other illegal out there is do not sell yourselves short. be the best at what you do and don't rely in one country to achieve greatness. think about this as an application to college , you might want to go to this certain college but they might not accept you; if you applied to other colleges chances are that there's another one you might like and achieve succes in. so if you tried to aply every single way possible to become a us citizen but cant consider living in another country. You never know life might be better out there than it's here. work hard and consider other options of living. best of luck to all of ya.

    By Cant Help Everyone

    From NC, 09/18/2009

    So why would you expect the US to cover you and allow you citizenship. Blame your parents, not the USA

    By Antonio Marquez

    From Los Angeles, CA, 06/21/2009

    I was brought to this country when I was 4. I don't even know how I got here. And i just graduated high school 2 weeks ago. I want to join the Navy but I can't because of my status here. Now Im stuck in a gardening job. Many of my friends have considered signing up for the Army or Marines but see that they can't. What a waste.

    By Edgar Hernandez

    From Chicago, IL, 02/05/2009

    Mary Jones is right, America has lost many great minded and outstanding young adults to the rath of politics. If a young adult is commited and willing to fight for a country that he/she is not native to while there are others who are born here and don't even want to think about the military,then let them join. It would be a astronomical good action where young people like Jose can fight for this country instead of roaming the streets and causing destruction like so many minority americans do every year. There are great minds out there like Jose who can have a postive impact in our society. If security is what you worry most about, then you might want to consider government officials who don't pass their civics test or don't pay taxes. These are the real criminals. Yes, we can dig deep into immagrants serving this country but the real question lies within our own understading of what it means to be an American. You have people like Jose who aren't born here and numerous Americans of eastern and southern ancestry willing to fight,while many Americans sit at home and watch television without giving a care about their country,who is more paitriotic?,who would you believe to follow American values?

    There are many stories like Jose's and plenty more to come in the future. It is alomost hard to grasp the concept of not letting young people like Jose to join the military especially in a time of conflict, willingly to go. Knowing that they either fight their hearts out, come back home or die. It would be a true honor for people like Jose to fight along side our friends and family in Iraq bot because of a citizenship that you know that when you are dead or know that you are about to die at any momment isn't worth anything. Of course the world in unfair and others manage to get by the system quicker than others but if it is for those puting their life on a battle field that some may never encounter than grant that young man or women his piece of paper of only words that allows him/her to stay. Jose and many others can truely protect our country now and in the future, and even save the life of another soldier.

    By Kevin Yoo

    From New York, NY, 01/19/2009

    it seems like im in the same situation as jose, I too was brought to america by my parents when i was a little child and i am currently trying to enlist in the us army. I came here when i was about 6 years old so i dont know very much of my origin, all i know is america and american culture but due to some complication, I was not able to recieve my permanent residency which is a real shame, i graduated elementary, middle and high school and now currently enrolled into college. If the US army allows people who are in similar situation like i am in order to gain their citizenship, then it would be greatly appreciated.

    By Juan Martinez

    From Laredo, TX, 01/19/2009

    I know what it feels like to be an immigrant I have been here since I was seven and now I am going to be 17 in june and ever since I have been here I have felt comfortable here and I plan to enlist in the army as soon is i graduate from high school.

    By Michael Smith

    From Winter Garden, FL, 01/19/2009

    I truly feel that America is a melting pot however, for the people that have come to America illegally they should be IMEDATILY deported. With very very few exceptions. With that said I also believe that the entire immigration system needs to be completely overhauled to make it easer for more people to come to America if they so chose

    By Jaxx Rea

    From Sherman Oaks, CA, 01/18/2009

    Oh come on, please! It is not THAT difficult! It's a basically simple methodical way to achieve legal residency/citizenship. All it takes is some dedication and self sufficiency. I immigrated with my family in early 1970's and it was very clear what we needed to do. We learned that we had to start by going to school and get at least "passing" grades in elementary school, graduate, and go to college, if we could manage it on our own. Family support was required and we had to sacrifice most of normal luxuries like extra clothes and fancy foods. We were also required to be law abiding, tax paying, citizens,and the long wait for naturalization was a basic "given" that was simply put up with. We often got the"looks" from neighbors but learned to live with it. That's life, and ya gotta live with it.

    By Tim Adams

    From Hickory, NC, 01/17/2009

    To begin, I would like to let you know that I am a graduate of the United States Military Academy (West Point), and I am a disabled veteran like my father before me. Both sides of my family belong to the Mayflower Society, and also have ties to different Native American tribes. Now that I have established my families long ties to both the military, and to this country, I would like to begin to talk to you about the first illegal immigrants in this land. The Europeans were by far, and may still be considered, the worst invaders to ever occupy this land illegally. It doesn't take a long trip down history lane to understand this. But, how is this related to today you may ask? We still allow Europeans and the rich citizens of many other countries of the world to come and go as they please. We allow them to enter this country and buy businesses and participate in the American Dream, expecting little in return. As a matter of fact, some of them refuse to become Americans in an attempt to evade the system. Then you have the people like the one in this story. They want to be a part of this country, and they are willing to pay the ultimate price for that chance. Personally, I think we should let them. Just like we should find jobs for people who are disabled and want to be a part of this countries greatest profession.

    At one time this country's military was founded on immigrants wishing to become legal, and slaves wishing to become free. But, we are now above that, above the American Dream, and above reaching our potential as a country and as a society. If you're interested in seeing what kind of impact an immigrant can have on our country through the military profession, just watch an old but good movie called "The Long Gray Line."

    By John Bennett

    From Seattle, WA, 01/17/2009

    Actually there is legal immigration from Mexico - it is simply insufficient (about 25,000 per year, same quota as any other country, small or large, near or small). It is still processing applications from 1994 and anyone applying today can expect to be dead of old age by the time their application reaches consideration.

    As for the comment about invaders, well invaders come in shooting and damaging - not looking for work and appreciative of the things we have here. These are immigrants like the world has had since time immemorial. Like our ancestors did. It should be regulated sensibly, but for those who contribute and come with good will it should be legal and allow for the many. It is a good thing.

    By Dolores Staub

    From WA, 01/17/2009

    Jose is lucky. I was in the US military for 19 years before I was medically retired with a 40% disability. Now, I find myself unable to work and dealing on a daily basis with the effects of post traumatic stress. I never saw combat. All of my trauma came from my job in the military, not any contact with enemy combatants. At least a smart person like Jose will now be forced to find more fulfilling work. I wish I had not been able to join the military. I'm only 45 and my life has been ruined by my service.

    By Jean Ignatuk

    From Philadelphia, PA, 01/17/2009

    This is in response to Michelle Leicester's comment about the Russians and Indians who are working toward their citizenship legally -- this is what most Americans don't understand. A foreigner's opportunity to become an American citizen is based --unfairly -- on where you come from. If you come from India or Russia you CAN come to the US legally. Yes it's hard and there is a lot of pain-in-the-you-know-what paperwork, but it is possible. For someone like Jose, and for all but the most wealthy Mexicans, it is totally 100% impossible to come to the US legally. Mexico is one of the countries the US has determined that we don't want anymore people from. If you don't have a familial connection to a US citizen or a lot of money, as a Mexican you can NEVER EVER enter the US legally. Any wonder they come illegally? They have no legal alternative. And for someone like Jose or anyone who has spent even ONE DAY within the US illegally, they have NO legal path to citizenship. Their only option is deportation, period. It is a ridiculous problem that our government ignores people like Jose and lets them slip through the cracks when they could be happy, productive members of our society.

    By Nilda Quintana

    From Cleveland, OH, 01/17/2009

    I am a foreign born US citizen and came to this country legally and because I speak Spanish I've had an opportunity to learn about the difficulties many illegal immigrant must face and why they do that. I am sure examples can be found of illegal immigrants who deserve to be send back, but I know they are not the norm. The majority do not come here willingly. The majority understand they are risking their lives, their freedoms and all of their extended families savings (it costs a lot less to come here legally.) They know they need to work as hard as they can to pay them back and to send enough money to protect their families for as long as they can. Their families health, livelihood, education and perhaps freedom depends on them. And not only their direct families, but sisters, uncles, grandparents too. Outside of the US Armed Forces, I don't know many people like these. And I think they are worth their weight in gold. So it hurts me when I see them look down upon. They may not speak English, but it is hard to take time to learn it when you are working 80 to 100 hours a week. And still, many do. Do we want to give everyone the same rights we have as citizens. Maybe not. But what kind of example we give to the world if we can't stand up to our own values of respect, self-reliance and freedom for all who come and seek it? The fact is, these are natural rights and people will take them whether they are allowed to or not. Are we going to stand by them or are we going to hide behind a wall? All undocumented workers should have a choice to apply for legal documents. Denied temporary visa requests are the main source for undocumented. And if you think they were denied their visa for a good reason, well, you don't know anything. My visa was accepted every time. And I whole heartly believe this was because the agent liked the way looked. I'm faired skin. do I need to say more? I think not.

    By frank kinney

    From howell, MI, 01/17/2009

    be civil and brief and relevant. like ain't she the thoughtful compassionate one mary jones? OK! illegal invaders children! our new military foreign military force of illegal foreign parents mary jones? their children just as illegal has their parents are? law breakers! our laws? we pay for their illegal entry into our country? now give them a gun to defend U.S. mary jones? beginning of the what! foreign illegal invaders legion of america? security protection" we do not get from our own goverment NOW? this same goverment wants to put the illegal into our military? for our security? drugs gangs are taking over mexico and why? drugs? who buys them drugs? U.S.!!! yet our goverment media not only don't talk of this problem they do for nothing to stop it either? TRUST! believe me if they were helping to stop this cartel drug gangs that bring drugs into our open borders country we have shoot out daily on that drug border NOW don't you THINK?? we can't use children like this in our society military mary jones question? answer is only if one is a fool like YOU! one must put total big picture togeather to see what long term consequences of this action thought brings? it's a loss we can't use children like this in society and their are (millions) of others in this situation across our country? go obama go!!!! mary jones of CHINA GROVE, NC!!!! bright delight democrat! member of the jewish homosexual negro party of illegal thought with no oversight! no regulations! no accountability future with republicon help!!!now they want a foreign legion army of illegal INVADERS children. boy just can't wait! new recruits will really flood our country now? AMEN.

    By Stewart Church

    From South Bend, IN, 01/17/2009

    I am over 60, have a BSET, am well read, and think I'm pragmatic and realistic. I've pondered both sides of the illegals question. I think the voluntary/involuntary criterion is one of the most sensible dividing lines I've heard of. It's too bad the bureaucracy sees only black-and-white illegality. I'd feel proud and secure to have Jose protecting our country, alongside my step-son, Michael.

    By michele leicester


    I feel sorry for Jose and his situation. However, I work with several young people from India and Russia who work in this country legally and are working hard toward their citizenship. Reporting to immigration bureau, sending in their paper work and completing all the steps they need to take for US citizenship. This is difficult and can take as long as 7 years to complete. Is it fair to them that Jose gets his citizenship handed to him because his parents committed a criminal act and their parents did not? I think not. Resolution : allow Jose to work as the others toward his citizenship since he did not have the choice to come here illegally in the first place.

    By Thomas Sutrina

    From Rockford, IL, 01/17/2009

    What happened to, "With silent lips, "Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." (ref: Emma Lazarus "The New Colossus") Unless you are a american indian you family crossed the boarders of the USA to be here. My father looked at the statue of Liberty at ten. His father asked his wife if she wanted him to return to their Mediterranean island or bring her and my father to the US. She wrote back, "get me the out of here." I visited my father at his home this month. He is 98.

    By Mary Jones

    From China Grove, NC, 01/16/2009

    Its a loss we can't use children like this in society, there are millions of others in his situation... we can only wait Go Obama!

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