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Marine for 11 Years Turns Self In as Illegal Immigrant : Military: He says a recruiter supplied bogus papers. His superior and a congressman support bid for legal status.

April 06, 1994|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Danny Lightfoot is a sergeant in the Marine Corps. He also is an illegal immigrant.

The native of the Bahamas, a Marine for 11 years, turned himself in to immigration authorities in Los Angeles on Tuesday, hoping to gain legal status. He has the support of his commanding officer and a local congressman, who describe him as an outstanding soldier.

"Should I have to make the ultimate sacrifice one day, I would willingly die defending America," Lightfoot said. "My only regret would be that I would not die as an American."

At Marine Corps headquarters in Arlington, Va., a spokesman called Lightfoot's case "an unusual situation." But officials did not respond to questions about how an illegal immigrant could join the Corps and go undetected for years. The case comes at a time when the government is seeking to crack down on private employers for hiring undocumented workers.

Lightfoot, 29, entered the country legally but stayed beyond the expiration date of his student visa.

While living in Miami, he enlisted in the Marines in 1983, using fraudulent papers that he contends were supplied by a recruiter.

In 1991, Lightfoot was reassigned to the United States after a tour in Okinawa. To obtain U.S. passports for his family, he was told that he needed proof of citizenship. Two of his children were born abroad and a third child was born in the United States.

Lightfoot said he had no choice but to acknowledge his undocumented status to military authorities.

"I did not come forward sooner because I was sure it would jeopardize my Marine Corps career, which I felt was the only way to support my family," he said.

The Naval Investigative Service conducted an inquiry, but it resulted in no charges against the recruiter "as the statute of limitations had run out," said a Marine Corps spokesman. Lightfoot was not prosecuted because "he had a clean record."

Marine Corps officials said they notified the Immigration and Naturalization Service of Lightfoot's status later in 1991.

Tuesday, Lightfoot stood out from other immigrants lined up at the INS office as he walked in wearing his uniform with multicolored ribbons above his left shirt pocket.

"The Marine Corps is backing me 100%," he said, with letters in hand from his superiors.

"Sgt. Lightfoot is deserving of special consideration because he has demonstrated his commitment to America by his willingness to defend it with his life," said a letter from Lt. Col. F. L. Kebelman III, executive officer at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow, where Lightfoot is stationed.

In a letter to the INS asking that Lightfoot be given legal status, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) said, "Sgt. Lightfoot has received several awards and commendations as the result of his dedication and loyalty to the Marine Corps and the United States."

Although he has not seen combat, Lightfoot has earned a Navy achievement medal, three good conduct medals, two certificates of commendation, seven letters of appreciation and a meritorious unit commendation.

Lightfoot was accompanied at the INS office by his wife, Raquel, a Bahamian who is also asking for legal residency, and their attorney, Carl Shusterman.

"People say illegal aliens take jobs away, take welfare," Shusterman said. "This guy, who is an illegal alien, is willing to die for this country."

After meeting with an immigration officer, Lightfoot was permitted to return to the Marine Corps base in Barstow until a hearing is set on his request for legal status.

Although immigration officials have yet to make a recommendation on Lightfoot's request, "the investigator could not have been more friendly," said Shusterman. "He turned out to be an ex-Marine."

Donald B. Looney, deputy director of the INS in Los Angeles, said that over the years, the INS has encountered illegal immigrants in the military. "I don't think it happens as much as it did when there was a big push to recruit people for the military," he said.

Lightfoot was permitted to return to the base because he is not considered a threat to public safety or likely to flee.

Under the law, illegal immigrants can apply for "suspension of deportation" proceedings if they have lived in the country for seven years and are of good moral character and if their deportation would cause a hardship on their family. But in the case of illegal immigrants in the military, the residency requirement is only two years.

Said Lightfoot: "I would like my family to be privileged with everything that the average American has. . . . I hope the United States will see that I have been serving the country."

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