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Easier Citizenship Sought for 'Green Card' GIs

House panel backs bill to relax rules for immigrants in the U.S. military. Move is prompted by troops' deaths in Iraq war.

May 08, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Legislation to ease citizenship requirements for immigrants serving in the U.S. military is speeding through the House, propelled by the deaths of "green card" soldiers in the war with Iraq.

The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would cut to one year -- from the current three -- the waiting period for service members to apply for citizenship during peacetime.

President Bush last year waived the waiting period during wartime.

The bill, approved on a voice vote, would take several other steps to relax immigration rules for the estimated 37,000 active-duty members of the armed forces who are not U.S. citizens. Some of the provisions also would apply to the families of noncitizens who die while on duty.

Republicans predict the House will easily pass the bill and send it to the Senate as early as this month. That would put it on a fast track for a Congress that in recent years has been reluctant to ease immigration rules.

The war in Iraq changed that political dynamic -- lawmakers are eager to help the soldiers, sailors, aviators and Marines who deposed a dictator in Baghdad.

The House has already backed tax breaks for the troops. On Wednesday, it unanimously approved another bill to protect service members from certain financial difficulties.

The citizenship bill is sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a conservative Republican from Wisconsin who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and two liberal Democrats often at odds with him on other issues -- Reps. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas.

Sensenbrenner said the measure would pay homage to 10 holders of green cards in the U.S. armed forces who were killed in the Iraq war. The Pentagon has said seven were from California.

"We can never repay those noncitizen members of our military who made the ultimate sacrifice," Sensenbrenner said. "But we can bring reasonable changes to the naturalization process for other permanent-resident service members willing to make the same sacrifice and provide immigration benefits to family members who could have obtained such benefits had the service member not died."

Democrats had misgivings about some provisions that Republicans added to the bill, but they were pleased that GOP leaders had agreed to act on the issue.

"A major, major milestone," Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) said of Wednesday's committee vote. "We didn't think this would ever happen."

Solis, who had pushed for a broader benefits bill, said she was spurred by the case of Francisco Martinez Flores, a 20-year-old Marine lance corporal from Duarte, who was two weeks shy of becoming a U.S. citizen when he was killed in the war.

Solis said the committee-approved measure would "help provide dignity, not only to the fallen soldier, but also to [the] families."

Along with cutting the time noncitizen troops must wait before seeking naturalization, the bill would waive application fees. It also would make it easier for overseas applicants to file their paperwork, undergo interviews and take part in citizenship oaths and ceremonies at U.S. embassies, consulates or military bases.

Currently, service members posted abroad must return to the United States to process naturalization applications.

With some limitations, the bill also would permit parents, children and spouses of U.S. citizens who die on duty -- or close relatives of immigrant troops awarded citizenship posthumously -- to apply for immigration benefits as if the service member were still alive. Current law denies such help.

A controversial Republican amendment, approved on a largely party-line vote, would require parents of a deceased service member to be in the United States to qualify for benefits, congressional aides said.

The committee approved another amendment over Democratic objections that would revoke citizenship for immigrants who gained that status while in the armed forces but who subsequently were dishonorably discharged.

If enacted, most provisions would be retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001, the date of the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Times staff writer Robert J. Lopez in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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