An Army of Uno

Struggling to find homegrown recruits, the military is persuading immigrants to enlist by dangling promises of U.S. citizenship

Angel Gomez got the call nearly a year before his high school graduation. A United States Marine Corps recruiter wanted to see him. It was the fall of 2002, and Angel was hoping to go to college, but he agreed to stop by the recruiting office anyway. As they talked about his plans for the future, Angel was struck by what seemed like a staggering lack of options, especially when the recruiter asked him if he could pay for his education.

Angel knew his family couldn't afford to send him to college. And many of those college scholarship applications say "Must be a U.S. citizen."

The recruiter was making the hard-sell even though Angel wasn't yet a citizen — he only had a green card. He told Angel that once he finished boot camp and went to his first duty station, he could get his U.S. citizenship.

After months in a wheelchair, Angel Gomez is back on his feet.
Jen Siska
After months in a wheelchair, Angel Gomez is back on his feet.
Angel still goes to VA Palo Alto facilities three days a week for rehabilitation.
Jen Siska
Angel still goes to VA Palo Alto facilities three days a week for rehabilitation.

Angel was born in Valle de Guadalupe, a town in Mexico's Pacific Coast state of Jalisco. It was a place that his mother, Antonia, says was full of women and little kids because everybody else had crossed the border. When her children got older, she decided to come to the U.S., where she hoped they'd have a better chance to get an education. So, in 1993 when Angel was 7 years old, the family hired a coyote to drive him and his 2-year-old brother, Francisco Javier, across the border through Tijuana. His mom, who was pregnant, crossed on foot.

They joined his father, who had a green card, and lived near downtown Los Angeles, in Inglewood, until Angel was in eighth grade. Then they moved to Farmersville, a small town south of Fresno. Angel struggled in high school, but found that he loved a program that prepared students for careers in the medical field.

Then the recruiter called.

Angel thinks the Marine Corps got his home phone number from his high school, a mandatory practice for schools funded under No Child Left Behind unless students or their parents sign a form that they don't want their personal information released.

Angel wasn't the best student, and without scholarships, he felt like he didn't have a choice. So he enlisted, even though his mother tried to stop him. "I knew he was fighting for a better life, but I told him I would prefer him to be poor and have a humble job," she says. "But he wanted to study, and we couldn't pay for it."

He enlisted in July 2003. Two years later, after he'd returned from Iraq, Angel was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. But things were different since he got injured there. Sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a plastic helmet to protect his brain, Angel and his parents faced an immigration official.

"Please raise your right hand," the official said. Angel couldn't — he's mostly lost the use of that arm. He rose his left hand instead and said a soft "I do" at the proper moment.

Angel was finally a citizen, but any hopes of going to college were all but dashed. He had to once again learn how to walk, to talk, and to live on his own.


Pablo Paredes has never met Angel, but he says he's heard dozens of similar stories: the call from a recruiter, long talks about money for college or citizenship, maybe even an adventurous recruiting video.

From the American Friends Service Committee office just off Market Street in downtown San Francisco, Paredes schedules visits to Bay Area schools to talk with students, often Latinos, about alternatives to military service. In addition to his work as a counter-recruiter, he fields calls from service members as a contractor for the GI Rights Hotline, a network of private nonprofits that provides information about military discharges as well as grievance and complaint procedures.

Paredes worries that immigrant families are especially vulnerable to being intimidated by overzealous recruiters — especially if they speak English as a second language. "The parents will get called, and if they're a green card parent or an undocumented parent, what's going to happen is [recruiters may] say you're going to get deported if your son doesn't go," he says.

Paredes enlisted in the Navy in 2000, he remembers being shown a picture of a man in a space suit with a Navy logo on it, and his recruiter telling him that he could end up working for NASA. But the lure of becoming an astronaut faded as he was confronted with the reality of going to war. In December 2004 he refused to board an assault ship named the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego when it was leaving for the Persian Gulf. He applied to be a conscientious objector but was denied, faced court martial, and was eventually sentenced to several months of hard labor and discharged. In 2005, Amnesty International declared Paredes a "prisoner of conscience."

It's hard to imagine Paredes was ever a military man. With his hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, he can rattle off countless details about the downsides of life in the armed services: criticisms about the shrinking power of the GI Bill, the Veterans Affairs' estimate that one-quarter of homeless adults are veterans, and reports that 14 percent of those enlisted are Latinos, yet make up less than 5 percent of the military's officer corps. "We're over-represented in infantry and under-represented in officer roles," he says.

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