Mexicans Offering to Fight for U.S. in Exchange for Citizenship

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In recent weeks, the U.S. Embassy has fielded hundreds of requests from Mexicans offering to fight for the United States in exchange for American citizenship.

While polls show as many as 80 percent of Mexicans oppose the war in Iraq , the conflict has revived a common but mistaken belief: Fighting for the United States is an easy route to citizenship.

The mistaken notion is one of many rumors about the Iraq war that American diplomats attempt to dispel amid powerful anti-war and anti-U.S. sentiment.

"We try to bat down some of the craziest or most off-centered myths," said U.S. Embassy press attache Jim Dickmeyer, speaking as demonstrators kept an anti-war vigil outside the heavily guarded gates of his office in central Mexico City.

In fact, non-citizens can join the U.S. armed forces but only if they have already obtained permanent legal residency, otherwise known as having a "green card."

In July, President Bush issued an executive order making 15,000 foreign nationals in the military — about half the total at the time — immediately eligible to apply for citizenship instead of having to wait the customary three years. Included were all those serving during the Sept. 11 attacks.

On March 21, a former illegal immigrant, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, 22, became one of the first combat casualties of the war. A native of Guatemala, he crossed Mexico and slipped over the U.S. border 11 years earlier, eventually getting legal residency and growing up in California.

Stories such as these feed persistent beliefs that, despite the risk, military service in the United States is a good way to escape grinding poverty at home and preferable to the danger of hiring an immigrant smuggler to make a dangerous border crossing.

With that belief comes another: "Hispanics are the ones they send to the front lines," said Felix Sanchez, who shines shoes outside the U.S. Embassy and has seen many people coming to ask about enlisting in exchange for citizenship.

Ricardo Monreal, the governor of Zacatecas, a northern state with a long tradition of immigration to the United States, recently claimed that that Latinos and blacks represent 70 percent of the U.S. armed forces, and that 40 percent were of Mexican origin.

In fact, only 8.7 percent of the U.S. armed forces are represented by Latinos from various countries, including Mexico, while Latinos represent 12.9 percent of the overall U.S. population, embassy officials said.

"Just by looking at the figures, you see that no, they're not being overly enticed,'" Dickmeyer said.

War doubts and fears have been further inflamed by news that one Mexican serving in the U.S. military was killed in the war, while another was taken prisoner.

In television and newspaper interviews, Simona Garibay, the devastated mother of slain soldier Jose Angel Garibay, claimed her son never wanted to fight and that Bush "needs to have sympathy for mothers like me and stop the war."

Rumors of another sort, meanwhile, abound along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

Many have heard, mistakenly, that authorities plan to close the border as a security measure, fearing terrorists will try to enter along with the thousands of people who cross legally each day to work, shop or attend school.

U.S. authorities insist there are no plans to halt legal crossings, though security has been increased.

A separate set of terrorist fears concerns the arrests of Iraqi citizens on immigration violations in Mexico. But this, in fact, is a regular occurrence.

The Iraqis are mostly Chaldean Catholics or Orthodox Christians who claim to be fleeing persecution and have been coming to Mexico for several years to make asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border. The United States regularly grants such requests from the Iraqis.

Many Mexicans also fear economic reprisals for not supporting the war. Mexico is a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and President Vicente Fox , despite heavy lobbying, decided not to support a resolution backing military action.

Both Fox and Bush insist that bilateral relations won't be affected, but many, including the Mexican business community, have their doubts.

"We have our hands tied. We can't ever do anything against the United States," said Ramon Aguilar Estrada, a 50-year-old chauffeur from central Mexico. "We always have been and we continue to be a colony of the United States."