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Military's fast track to U.S. citizenship stalling
Four months before he was killed, Lance Cpl. CÚsar F. Machado-Olmos told his mother at their Spanish Fork home that he had mailed in his application to become a U.S. citizen.
But when the 20-year-old Marine died in Iraq on Sept. 13, he was still waiting for citizenship on what is supposed to be a naturalization fast track for those serving in the U.S. military.
And Machado-Olmos' mother, Patricia Acosta, is still waiting on his behalf for a posthumous citizenship award. The Department of Homeland Security lost her son's application papers, according to Marine Maj. Jennifer Bentley, who spoke with the agency officials.
The Marines picked up a new application and Acosta signed the forms for her deceased son.
Posthumous citizenship has been awarded during the past two years to 37 members of the U.S. military.
Those certificates, however, lack benefits that give family members special consideration in coming to the United States. If GIs gain citizenship before their deaths, surviving family members' application process for lawful residence is speeded up during a two-year window of opportunity.
"A posthumous citizenship award is honorary, there are no benefits conferred with it," said Chris Bentley, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "It's an award a grateful nation confers on someone, thanking them for their sacrifices."
Machado-Olmos died during his second tour of duty in Iraq when the Humvee he was riding in overturned in the embattled province of Al Anbar. He was born in Mexico but came to the United States with his mother in 1989.
Noncitizens serving in the U.S. military were required to serve at least one year of honorable duty to become eligible for U.S. citizenship. Machado-Olmos joined the Marines in August 2001, just a few months after graduating from Spanish Fork High School.
Two years ago, President Bush signed an executive order making noncitizens eligible immediately if they have served any time after Sept. 11, 2001.
About 8,000 GIs have been awarded citizenship since Bush signed the order. More than 18,000 have applied.
The goal is for citizenship to be granted within 90 days, said Bentley, who added that the agency cannot verify the length of actual waiting times.
One stumbling block for noncitizen GIs serving abroad is that the final step in becoming a citizen is taking an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. Those ceremonies may be conducted only on U.S. soil.
It is believed that many of 37 noncitizen GIs killed in the war zone were unable to be naturalized because they could not return to the United States and take the oath before their deaths, said Bentley.
Among them is Cpl. Juan Carlos Cabral Banuelos, 25, of Washington Terrace. He was killed on Jan. 31 near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk when a roadside bomb hit his unarmored Humvee. A year earlier he earned a Purple Heart when a grenade hit a building where he was making a telephone call to his father.
Cabral, who had planned on becoming a U.S. citizen last spring, was awarded posthumous citizenship on the day of his funeral.
"It doesn't signify anything," said his father, Angel Cabral about the certificate. "He should have received it when he was alive. Now, what for? He should have received all these honors, not us."
On Oct. 1, Homeland Security will be authorized to conduct ceremonies overseas for members of the U.S. military at embassies, consulates and military installations.
"We'll have the authority to bring those ceremonies outside of the United States to give noncitizens in the military the gift of citizenship," said Bentley. "We're excited about the prospect."
Besides taking the oath, noncitizen GIs must demonstrate they have a good moral character, along with knowledge of the English language and U.S. history.
How streamlined is the entire process for noncitizen GIs?
"We used to have classes on post to help people through the naturalization process," said Cecil Green, spokesman for Fort Hood, Texas, where Cabral Banuelos was stationed before he was sent to Iraq. "But that was cut back several years ago."