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Mission Accomplished : Military: Illegal immigrant who has been a U.S. Marine for 11 years gets his green card in an emotional ceremony. He is happy, but worries about the status of his wife and two of his children.

December 17, 1994|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than a decade, Danny Lightfoot inhabited the shadow world of illegal immigrants, dodging questions about his nationality and carrying a forged birth certificate just in case.

In that sense, his story was not unusual, except for one fact: Lightfoot, a citizen of the Bahamas, was a U.S. Marine, enlisted by an aggressive recruiter who, Lightfoot says, went so far as to secure the false birth document for him.

On Friday, Sgt. Lightfoot, in a uniform bedecked with a rainbow of service ribbons, finally won the right to live permanently in the United States and work here.

That once-distant goal accomplished, Lightfoot's hope is that the same privileges will soon be conferred on his wife, who now has only limited legal status, and his two youngest children, Danny Jr., 5, and Demetrius, 2, who remain undocumented. (His oldest, Dominic, 8, is a U.S. citizen, born in North Carolina while Lightfoot was stationed at Camp Lejeune.)

"If I happen to die for my country, I want to die knowing that my kids can call that country home," Lightfoot, 30, said after an emotional ceremony at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles, where he stood next to a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

His wife, Raquel, 25, also from the Bahamas, burst into tears before a throng of news cameras as her husband held up his new green card.

The sergeant's experience is clearly an unusual one: A distinguished service record--and the support of the Marine Corps, U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) and Carl Shusterman, a prominent Los Angeles immigration attorney--greatly aided him. The millions of other illegal immigrants who also live under the threat of deportation and separation from their families seldom enjoy such advantages.

But in the Proposition 187 era, Lightfoot's saga serves as a cautionary tale, underscoring how the undocumented defy generalization. Even INS officials--not known for their humanitarian impulses toward potential deportees--acknowledged that this Marine had earned the opportunity to remain.

"There are people who are coming into the United States who are dedicated and want to make a contribution," said Richard K. Rogers, district director of the INS in Los Angeles, who personally presented Lightfoot with his green card.

The sergeant's two youngest children, technically subject to arrest, cavorted through the INS corridors.

The Marine's battle for legal status also stands as a dramatic illustration of how Proposition 187 glides over the labyrinthine complexity of the immigration process and the often-arcane laws governing it, which were shaped by decades of legislation and litigation. That shortcoming is one of the key arguments that persuaded a federal judge this week to slap a temporary injunction on most of the ballot measure's key provisions.

Most illegal immigrants, experts say, are members of families, not unlike Lightfoot's, that include hodgepodges of the lawful and undocumented. Returning to their homeland is often not a viable option, especially for those with children who are U.S. citizens.

Lightfoot's is "the classic case of a divided family," said Shusterman, who shepherded it through the dense immigration bureaucracy.

Even though Lightfoot now has a green card, Proposition 187 would still bar his two youngest from attending public schools and receiving other taxpayer-supported benefits, including non-emergency health care. With his limited military salary, Lightfoot says, he couldn't afford to send his children to private school.

Moreover, Proposition 187 would also mandate that educators, social service workers, health providers and law enforcement officials report illegal immigrants such as his sons for possible deportation. And Raquel Lightfoot, while currently holding temporary legal status, would be barred from receiving state-funded services because the proposition's eligibility definitions are much narrower than those found in federal law.

Lightfoot enlisted in the Marines in 1983, while he was a high school student in Miami. Naval investigators later declined to prosecute Lightfoot and the recruiter he says provided the fake birth certificate.

The young Marine's lack of status did not become a major obstacle until 1991, when, while on a tour of duty in Okinawa, he was informed of a pending reassignment to the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Barstow. With his military identification, Lightfoot could have come to California easily enough. But his wife and children needed passports. Lightfoot made the difficult decision: He turned himself in.

"I fully expected I would be taken into custody," said Lightfoot, who was recently approved for a promotion to staff sergeant.

Instead, military officials decided to help him, sending the Marine on a path that eventually led Friday to the INS office.

Now Lightfoot is seeking U.S. citizenship, which, once achieved, should enable his wife and children to obtain the legal papers that he finally possesses.

"What good does it do me if I'm able to eat lobster and steak," Lightfoot asked, "if my kids are eating ground beef? I don't want them to go through what I had to go through."

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