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Bills Would Aid Citizenship Passage for GIs

June 05, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Moved by the deaths of foreign nationals who fought for the United States in Iraq, both houses of Congress approved on Wednesday legislation to speed the path to U.S. citizenship for such green-card troops and to help their families if they are killed.

The House approved, 414 to 5, a bill that would cut to one year, from the current three, the time active-duty members of the U.S. armed forces must wait before applying for citizenship during peacetime. The overwhelming bipartisan support enabled the bill to easily clear the two-thirds majority required for passage.

The Senate, meantime, approved by voice vote an amendment to a defense bill that would cut the waiting period to two years and extend similar benefits to certain military reservists in wartime.

Though they differ in details, both versions would also waive naturalization fees for applicants who are in the military, relax other requirements and grant eligibility for immigration benefits to close relatives of citizens or U.S. permanent residents killed on duty in the armed services.

Lawmakers predicted rapid agreement on a final bill for President Bush's signature, one of the few times in recent years Congress has moved to ease, rather than tighten, immigration requirements.

They called the action a tribute to the troops who risked their lives for the United States in the Iraq war even though they were not yet American citizens and held only "green cards" identifying them as lawful permanent residents.

In the latest tally from the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Cynthia Colin said Wednesday that 12 noncitizens -- 11 Marines and one soldier -- died in Operation Iraqi Freedom. That raises by two the previous total of noncitizen deaths. In all, Colin said, 177 U.S. service members have died in the operation.

At least seven of the noncitizen casualties were from California, officials have said. At least eight have been awarded posthumous citizenship, according to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

Wednesday's actions in Congress increased the likelihood that these fallen members of the all-volunteer U.S. armed forces -- born in such countries as Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Scotland and the Philippines -- would also leave a legislative legacy in their adopted land.

"We must honor the heroic dead, for their courage and their tireless commitment to the dream that is freedom," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). "And we must honor the worthy heroes who fight for us today, and embrace them as our fellow citizens."

To Cornyn, who joined the Senate in January, the issue was so important that he made it the subject of his first bill. He co-sponsored the Senate amendment with Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Other lawmakers have introduced similar measures in recent months, including Reps. Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista) and Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte).

The congressional action also acknowledges the role played by 37,000 noncitizens among the 1.4-million service members on active duty. Bush had already spotlighted their contributions with an executive order waiving the waiting period for citizenship applications as the Pentagon moved to a wartime footing after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Hundreds have sought to take advantage of that order. On July 2, more than 200 service members are expected to be sworn in as citizens in San Diego in a ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier Constellation, said U.S. immigration spokeswoman Virginia Kice.

For most permanent residents not in the military, the waiting period for U.S. citizenship is five years. An exception is for those married to U.S. citizens, whose minimum wait is three years, Kice said.

Under the legislation approved Wednesday, military green-card holders would have a swifter road to citizenship during peacetime.

The House bill would cut the waiting period to one year, waive fees and enable service members posted overseas to process their applications at consulates, embassies or military bases without returning to the United States. Currently, they must fill out paperwork and take their oaths in the United States -- often a time-consuming and cumbersome prospect.

The House bill also would help spouses, children and -- in limited cases -- parents of service members killed on duty apply for immigration to the United States.

To win the backing of House conservatives who favor restrictive immigration policies, the bill would revoke citizenship for service members who use the expedited immigration procedure but receive a discharge other than honorable within five years of enlisting. And it would block immigration qualifications for certain parents of deceased noncitizen soldiers unless the parents were in the U.S. when their offspring died.

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