Dallas Morning News
Monday, July 11, 2005

Hispanic recruitment increases in military

Services may mirror traditions, but some point to lack of choices

By JORGE GÓMEZ / Al Día

Javier Serrano is ready to join the Marines and willing to die for his country. Nothing scares him. Not even the death of his brother, Nazario, a Marine who was killed in Iraq.

"I want to understand what happened to Nazario," said Javier, 17, who is taking extra high school credits, hoping to graduate early. He wants to leave in October for boot camp in San Diego.

Javier is not alone in considering going to war. According to figures provided by the Defense Department, the recruitment of Hispanics increased 15.2 percent during the last year, while the number of new black and white recruits decreased.

In 2004, the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force recruited 23,190 Latino soldiers, the figures show. During the same period, recruitment decreased 7.6 percent among blacks and 4.6 percent among whites.

Every enlisted Hispanic teenager has a reason to go to war. For Javier, it's his deceased brother. For Alfonso Perez, 17, a Sunset High School senior, it's the promise of a better future.

"It's the only way to go to college," Alfonso said.

Maria Torres, 18, who came to the U.S. from Guanajuato, Mexico, has a much simpler reason: "I just want to do it," she said before leaving for boot camp in South Carolina. There she would have to get rid of her piercing and put on the Army's boots and uniform.

Retired Brig. Gen. Bernardo Negrete, formerly of the Army Recruiting Command, says a familiar environment attracts Hispanics toward the armed forces: "The military structure is very similar to that of a typical Hispanic family. Respect for discipline, a strong sense of responsibility and bullet-proof loyalty."

Jorge Mariscal, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and a Vietnam veteran, disagrees. "Poverty and lack of opportunities are driving a generation of Hispanics to war," he said. "They can't find a job or pay for college. This is about having no other choice."

At the Farmers Branch recruitment center, Sgt. 1st Class Carmelo Mora and Sgt. Robert Contreras point to a map marked with five purple sticky notes. "That's our target. These are areas with a strong Hispanic presence," Sgt. Mora said.

Their mission is to enlist five recruits every month.

Teenagers are not the only Hispanics showing their eagerness to join the military. Older people also visit the recruitment center. Many of them are undocumented immigrants, Sgt. Contreras said. "We have no choice but to let them go. They need to be legal permanent residents to join us."

Among the government's incentives to those who enlist are, depending on some restrictions, a $20,000 bonus upon enlisting and up to $80,000 in grants and scholarships, as well as the promise of obtaining citizenship to those who are legal residents.

Many permanent residents have been lured by the government's offer to accelerate their naturalization process. Six months after enlisting, a soldier may become a U.S. citizen. There are 29,756 noncitizens in the armed forces, according to the Defense Department.

"Sure, those are great promises. My son believed them all. Now he's a dead U.S. citizen," said Fernando Suarez del Solar, director of Proyecto Azteca, a California group opposed to recruitment of Hispanics in high schools. His son, Jesus, persuaded his father to sell his house in Mexico and move to the U.S. so that he could graduate from an American school and join the Marines.

"Even before his death in Iraq, I understood that offering U.S. citizenship to an alien to join the military is discrimination," Mr. del Solar said. He said that for all 142 resident immigrants killed in Iraq 22 of them Mexican posthumous citizenship is a cruel charade.

Ramon Flores, 28, who came to the U.S. from Tijuana, has a different opinion. As a Marine, he does not regret his time serving in the Iraq war.

"The uniform makes me proud. I feel respected," he said.

But after nine years with the Marines, he hasn't felt the urge to ask for naturalization. "It isn't the most important thing. I joined them because this is the only way out for most Hispanics," he said.

The lack of career choices for Latinos bothers Hector Flores, national director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "We're bothered that campaigns make targets out of our children, but at the same time we understand that due to economic difficulties it becomes an opportunity," he said. Still, he maintains that at 17 or 18, many youths are not prepared to make that decision.

Neither are many parents ready to accept it. Some, like Liz Aguilar of Arlington whose son, Josh, has been in Iraq for a year and has been ordered to return in August have put everything in God's hands. "Of course I worry, but I pray," she says. "Having faith is what helps me endure that he is in the war."

Says Maria Serrano, the mother of Javier and Nazario: "The military offers too many things because they already know that very few will come back from war. I hope my second son does.