Green-card soldiers fight to stay in the U.S.
The United States military is filled with Americans looking to make a difference in the world. But it also includes many people who cannot claim this as their home country. According to the Center for Naval Analysis, 8,000 non-citizens enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces every year. Many join hoping to gain citizenship, for themselves and their families. They’re often called “green-card soldiers.” Reporter Ani Chavez has a profile of one woman who enlisted, but found the military was a lot different than her recruiter led her to believe.
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ANI CHAVEZ: Monica Pacheco is originally from Mexico. She came to the U.S. in 1990, when she was 10 years old. In March of 2008, Pacheco received her green card, granting her permanent residency. She says she joined the Marines soon after.
Pacheco says that was a hard time in her life. She had just lost her job and was seeking stability for her and her daughter.
MONICA PACHECO: I think it got to a point where I wasn’t even thinking what I was doing because I pulled up Military.com, and I filled in an application thing that they have online, and I went to sleep. And the next morning, a recruiter calls me.
And this was the start of her recruitment into the Marines. Pacheco says the Marine recruiter called her several times.
PACHECO: And he was like, “Yeah, you’re interested in joining the Military...” And I went, “Well, to be honest I’m not sure…”
She wasn’t sure, so she didn’t return the recruiter's calls. Eventually, she says, he showed up at her house to convince her to join. And it worked. In April of 2008, Monica Pacheco joined the Marines.
PACHECO: He [the recruiter] said, “You qualify for these jobs, but I still have to check which ones you don’t qualify for because you are not a U.S. citizen.”
One of the benefits of joining the Military is a faster track towards citizenship. In 2002, President Bush issued an executive order to speed up the citizenship process for non-citizens serving in active duty.
What many people do not know is green-card soldiers are more likely to serve in combat since they do not have the citizen security clearance to advance rank. In other words, they can’t move up the military ladder.
PACHECO: I was going to be a mechanic, for cars and trucks, but if I would have been a U.S. citizen, I would have been classified as having a better options of jobs.
She was assigned to boot camp in South Carolina.
PACHECO: And when I was in boot camp, they said, “After you’re done with this, you’re going to go here.” And then they said, “By the way you’re gonna go here, and you’re not gonna see your daughter for another three months.” And that’s when I started saying “I don’t wanna be here.”
Pacheco wasn’t learning to be a mechanic, but instead to be a soldier.
PACHECO: I said, "I really don't want to kill anyone,” because they made it clear you are going to kill someone whether you like it or not. And I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, they said I was only going to be a mechanic … I can’t do this anymore, I can’t do this anymore.”
But you can’t just walk out on the Marines. So Pacheco found a way to get discharged on a technicality. When she first enlisted, Pacheco says she didn’t mention she had received therapy for stress. She says her recruitment officer told her to leave out this information on purpose. Her ultimate disclosure meant her military application was fraudulent and no longer valid. So, she could leave.
That was in August 2008. Even though Pacheco got out of the military, she can see why so many people stay in, for citizenship or not.
PACHECO: I still train, I still have everything organized at home, and even to a certain degree I still think, “You know what Monica, I like that organization and that structure of ... I don’t, don’t know. There’s something in the Military that got embedded inside of me, that makes me say, “Maybe one day, maybe I want to go back and finish what I started, you know?” But as a nurse. This way I’ll be helping out instead of killing.
She says being a part of the military gave her a sense of being a part of something greater, like she was actually accepted by America.
PACHECO: I saw myself as someone with honor and that people would respect and I wanted to be a part of this nation that rejected me so much.
And this experience is what many green-card soldiers share. By serving in the U.S. Military, they feel themselves to be part of America. Plus, green-card soldiers are eligible for GI benefits, just like other soldiers. However, because Pacheco left before her time was up, she did not receive these benefits.
Still, Pacheco found a way to go to college, and is now a student at Mills College in Oakland, where she is studying to be a nurse. She still isn’t a U.S. citizen but she’s in the process of applying. She says her military service strengthened her desire to do good in the world and to be a role model for her daughter, who is now 10.
For Crosscurrents, I’m Ani Chavez.
Ani Chavez is a reporter at the Mills College public interest reporting program.