How many times have you heard it said, “We are a nation of immigrants”?
What if I told you that countless immigrants have safeguarded our country’s freedoms? The purpose of the great experiment we call the United States has been protected by the valor of fighting men and women from every generation since our nation’s founding. Few Americans realize that throughout our nation’s history, countless immigrants – here legally or otherwise – have fought in defense of our nation.
World War I is a great example. At that time, Europeans were flocking to the United States in search of a better life. Tens of thousands quickly were sent back to their homelands to fight for a country that had not yet welcomed them into the fold. Who would fight for a land, or a people, that is not their own?
I cannot speak for each individual who put on the uniform. But I believe that when the world is in its darkest hours, the beacon of freedom and democracy shines brightest from our shores. Those immigrants understood exactly what they were fighting for when they left America in uniform to go back to Europe and into hell on earth.
Antonio Pierro arrived at Ellis Island in 1913 from Italy. When war broke out, Pierro barely spoke English. At that time, 20 percent of our military was foreign-born and many joined the ranks in hopes of achieving citizenship. Pierro fought for the United States, survived and returned to the U.S. with new skills and the hope of a good life. He married and started working in a General Electric plant. He remained in the United States the rest of his life – dying at age 110, the last surviving foreign-born soldier to have served in World War I.
Last year, Rep. Jeff Denham introduced HR 2377, or the Enlist Act. The bill offers a path to citizenship for immigrants who serve. To be eligible, applicants must have entered the country before 15 years of age and must serve honorably in our nation’s military.
This practice is not out of the ordinary. In 2009, The New York Times reported that the U.S. military had recruited skilled immigrants to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. In exchange, immigrants had the opportunity to become legal citizens in as little as six months.
We are a nation of laws and I believe they should be respected, upheld and enforced. However, we are talking about a group brought here by their parents, who know only the U.S. as home and in which our tax dollars have already invested heavily. Join these facts with historical precedent of immigrant military service, and there is only one practical conclusion: the Enlist Act deserves serious consideration.
As a combat veteran, my experience tells me our enemies don’t care what color your skin is. They do not care what faith you hold. They do not care if you are rich or poor, or if you are liberal or conservative. It is the flag we wear on our shoulders, and what the flag represents, that our enemies hate.
I have served with people from all walks of life. I can tell you that when you’re patrolling dangerous territory halfway around the world, the blessings we have in our country become engraved in your mind. I can think of no more honorable way to earn U.S. citizenship than in military service to our country.
Whitfield is a combat veteran who earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart while deployed in Iraq. He is an advocate for California veterans, earning the 25th Assembly District’s Veteran of the Year Award in 2011. He is also a member of the Waterford City Council.